In 1942, in the midst of World War II, two people reach out through a series of letters and become loyal pen pals. Their relationship deepens and a romance begins. Never having met, they soon face the prospect of seeing each other face to face. Will the bonds forged on the page transform into a lasting relationship?
Long before online dating, Ken Ludwig’s parents found love. One can only image a son’s amazement at hearing this story as a child, as a teen, and then as an adult, at each stage wondering about how the seeds of true love are planted and allowed to bloom. Ludwig, of course, is a noted playwright and so was able to share his parents’ story with a larger audience.
Dear Jack, Dear Louise, which will play at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage through December 29, tells the story of U.S. Army Captain Jacob S. Ludwig and aspiring actress Louise Rabiner. Directed by Jackie Maxwell, the production will star Jake Epstein as Jacob and Amelia Pedlow as Louise.
Pedlow, who received her B.F.A. from the Julliard School, has a long list of D.C. credits, including Doubt at Studio Theatre; Love’s Labor’s Lost at The Folger; and The Metromaniacs, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice with Shakespeare Theatre Company. Her Off Broadway credits include Intelligence (world premiere) at NYTW Next Door; Pride & Prejudice with Primary Stages (world premiere by Kate Hamill); Tis Pity She’s a Whore withRed Bull Theatre Company; The Liar and The Heir Apparent with Classic Stage Company; and You Never Can Tell with The Pearl Theatre Company.
She answers our questions about the production and maintaining the ultimate long distance relationship.
Ken Ludwig’s parents fell in love after corresponding through letters. The internet didn’t exist in 1942, but would their romance have flowered as it did without paper missives? What might make letters more powerful than emails?
While I want to emphasize how terribly intimate and gorgeous I think letter writing is, I do think Jack and Louise would have fallen for each other in any time period. (Very Outlander of me, I know.) But it’s true! In 2019, Louise would have been a rapid-fire texter with a strong affinity for gifs, and Jack during would have been a simple, one-word text man (a habit that would have driven Louise just crazy).
That being said, many aspects of the internet as we know it today would have changed the dynamics of their romance. Our modern ability to “google” a person would lead to a quick understanding of what they both did for a living, where they went to school, etc. Much of this information could also have been rooted out on social media. In addition, the ease with which we all can use our cellphones to talk and FaceTime anywhere anytime would have led to a very different form of communication that the snail-mail and letters of this play.
Not to give too much away, but Jack and Louise only hear each others’ voices once for the briefest of moments in the show, and they only see limited photographs of one another after many months of correspondence. All of the couples’ limits on communication in 1942 helps make Dear Jack, Dear Louise the terribly romantic piece that it is. Letters are tangible, physical things. Jack and Louise listen to long-form stories about each other’s lives and days and experiences. Jack convinces Louise to follow her heart through a long letter that bolsters her, reassures her of their relationship, tells a long story about Winston Churchill, and then quotes to Prime Minister. It is a terribly effective way to communicate. To tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end and to listen to a story as such. This, I believe, is the power of a good letter, and there are a hell of a lot of them in this play.
Their letter writing happened during a war when imminent death was a real possibility. Did that add an immediacy to their relationship?
Oh my God, absolutely! I’m sure it is still so often the case with the loved ones of service women and men around the world. Also, not only is your partner in mortal danger, but you can know so few details in the interest of national security. Jack is constantly limited to telling Louise only the vaguest of information about where he is which frustrates both of them as he is pushed deeper and deeper in Europe. However, this just forces the pair to talk about other things. They both avoid the topic of injury and death even as it looms closer and closer in the play. Jack does so in the interest of escaping the hell he’s in, and Louise does so to distract him (and sometimes herself). She tells Jack stories about her day-to-day life on her musical tour, about Hollywood starlets she reads about, and about plans for when he returns home. They tease and joke and cajole as way on handling the stress of Jack’s situation. At one point Louise says, “But if you think for a minute you can get out of dancing with me with some lame excuse about serving in the U.S. Army you’ve got another thing coming. So get the hell back here, got it?”
A heartbreaking aspect to the piece is they are both so young that the immediacy of the life and death nature of Jack’s existence in the army doesn’t land for either of them fully until he is in the heart of the war in Europe. By that point, I think they would have done absolutely anything to have seen each other in the year or so previous, but throughout that courtship, there is an innocence that is unaware that things will continue to escalate around the world in the ways that they do.
No matter the circumstances or method of corresponding, if Louise and Jack didn’t find common ground, they would not have fallen in love. What do you take away from their letters? How did their love affair unfold?
This is a perfect love story of opposites attractive. A left brain and a right brain. An extrovert and an introvert. A showgirl from Brooklyn and a doctor from rural Pennsylvania. But these two fall for each other precisely because of their differences. Louise gradually falls for Jack’s earnestness, his shyness, his scientific mind, and his precision. Jack falls in love with Louise’s brashness, her stubbornness, her emotional availability, and her courage as an artist. Over the course of the play, these two opposites then slowly discover the things that they have in common: a dry sense of humor, a love of family, and a generosity of spirit. These similarities create a foundation for their relationship, but they never lose true wonderment and awe over the traits that they envy in the other person. “You amaze me.” Jack tells Louise. And, speaking for Louise, the feeling is mutual.
Why do you think Ken Ludwig wanted to share this very personal story with the public?
I can only speak to what I take away from this story which is a story of deep and real human connection. The fact that his parents met via a letter writing correspondence over the course of three plus years, and that all during this time his father was drafted as an army surgeon, trained, and sent to the European Front is probably just too incredible a story for a storyteller like Ken Ludwig to not eventually theatricalize, but Ken specifically decided to make this story an epistolary one, consisting entirely of letters between his parents. I believe that this structure highlights the ways in which we communicate with each other. How we introduce ourselves to new acquaintances, how we speak about ourselves and our work and our family to those we are just meeting, how we listen and glean information about those whom we are getting to know, how we open ourselves up to each other through the act of sharing and gaining understanding and stepping into another person’s shoes. I think Ken Ludwig realized there was not only a fun, romantic story to be told here, but also one for our times about truly listening to one other and all the incredible possibilities that can lead from that.
Louise and Jack carried on a long distance – very long distance – relationship. With couples often being separated by work, what solace and advice might they take away from this play to help their own relationships survive?
This is such a wonderful play for anyone who has ever done long distance!! The heartache and longing will be immediately recognizable, specifically the way your gut drops to the floor when you realize you have to change plans and will be unable to see the person you love. This play offers a number of beautiful lessons on how long-distance couples can support each other. For instance, when an opportunity falls into Louise’s lap at one point in the story – a dream opportunity – even though it will mean changing their plans of seeing each other, Jack emphatically encourages her to take the it and follow her dreams. He begins the letter with how much he believes in her and ends it with “…now is the time for you to thrust ahead on all that talent, and we’ll figure out the rest of it, I promise. Love, Jack.”
All couples who see this show (and it’s a GREAT show to see with a partner) will also recognize the moments where Jack and Louise have trouble communicating, where they’re emotional and not fully listening to each other and picking fights over semantics. They persevere through these moments, though, breathe through them, apologize, and reengage with questions. There is certainly a relationship lesson to be gleaned in Dear Jack, Dear Louise about asking questions of your partner. Both Jack and Louise are wonderful at making sure to remain curious about the other person and ask questions to show care and attention. They also go through the very difficult waters of infidelity which in long distance can be that much harder, but the strength and honesty they display is inspiring. I’m realizing even while writing these thoughts that Jack and Louise are actually a spectacular couple. Come at them, war, long distance, and a road tour of a Broadway musical, they’ve got it covered.
Have you ever been in a long distance relationship? If so, how has that affected your portrayal of Louise? If not, is it something that you ever contemplated or would? How has playing Louise informed your opinion?
I have done a lot of long distance in my life. The longest one lasted for five years. It has affected my portrayal on Louise on the deepest of levels. The heartache of missing an opportunity to see the other person. The distress when I’ve had to choose between a job and spending time with them. The ways in which Louise genuinely revels in hearing from Jack. “I think you know by now, I love hearing from you” she says. I feel connected to the joy I feel whenever I get a message from the person I love when we’re apart. I am now of the mind that a long distance can strengthen communication. It can help you to never to take the person for granted. I’ve found a lot of who I am as an individual when I am in the midst of a long-distance relationship, but, oof, there is still just nothing better than that long dash through the airport into their arms after months away from the person you love. Wish I could tell you if Louise gets that or not, but you’ll have to see the show!
In a two-person play, both actors have to perform at a high level. How have you and Jake Epstein clicked in this play? Have you shared any personal stories that may shape your performances?
We have both been in long distance relationships!!! That was an immediate bond for both of us, and both of our significant others are currently in other cities so we share in a current understanding of long distance as well! In a two-person play where we are both onstage at the whole time, you rely on the other person in the deepest way possible. Our director has talked about us gaining a “spidey-sense” for each other because in this play we don’t even have the benefit of ever looking at one another. (An ironic turn of phrase as Jake played Spiderman on Broadway…) But we genuinely have come to a place where we breathe together. We pick up props simultaneously, we cover for each other when lines gets fumbled without missing a beat, and we sync up in this play. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner.
Online dating has some similarities with what Louise and Jack experienced, corresponding before meeting in person. Does the play show that first meeting? Anything you can share?
Hehehe I don’t know if I can!!! That might give away just too too much. Here’s what I will say, Jack spends eight months begging for leave to meet Louise for the first time, and only after that leave is granted does he ask her to send a photo! How’s that for loving what’s on the inside? However, the play really does, in a magical way, theatricalize Jack and Louise’s first meeting through letters onstage. It is painfully awkward. Louise makes jokes that Jack doesn’t understand or enjoy, and Jack fumbles terribly in answering Louise’s very general prompt of “Can you tell me something about yourself?” Both of them constantly worry that the other person is mortally offended by something they’ve said or not said. I think, in these early letters, Ken Ludwig has perfectly captured all the self-consciousness, terror, and delight of a first date.
Photos by Tony Powell
Dear Jack, Dear Louise
By Ken Ludwig
1101 Sixth Street, SW
Through December 29, 2019