MetroStage’s Producing Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin, has found yet another extraordinary ‘gem of play’ – The Letters by John W. Lowell – and gave it a setting worthy of a diamond. Expertly directed by John Vreeke and brilliantly performed by Michael Russotto and Susan Lynskey, the play, which had its successful DC premiere last night, delivers everything a demanding theatre-goer may wish for.
The play, set in 1930s during the Stalinist regime, is a thriller with as much mystery, drama and suspense as the story it tells. The action takes place in an office of a Director (Michael Russotto) in charge of literary censorship. Anna (Susan Lynskey), one of the editors, is called in for a chat, or so she thinks. A good 15 minutes after the Director’s sly attempts to break down her composure she asks him again “Why am I here?” What ensues is an intense, dramatic exchange between the Oppressor and the Oppressed, which shocks and surprises with its twists and turns. In the center of it all are Tchaikovsky’s letters exposing his love for men, and the Director’s mission to hide it from the public at any price, including that of a human life.
Two great actors under the leadership of highly experienced John Vreeke, bring the dramatic story to life with passion and force. Russotto is perfectly cast as the abominable apparatchik, a street smart ex-military turned government official, solidly built, domineering and off-putting. The actor meets the challenges of his multifaceted character with ease, smoothly oscillating between playing a joker/ charmer and a manipulating, screaming monster, managing to deliver some funny moments in the process. The last gripping scene of the play avails Russotto of an opportunity to add to his vast array of skills and gives the performance an astounding finale.
Lynskey is equally impressive in her role as Anna, a complex persona, forced to reveal her true self under a sinister threat. A mousy looking, work-focused editor doing everything in her power to remain unnoticed and left alone, switches into a survival mode once humiliated and abused, giving talented Lynskey plenty of opportunities to showcase her amazing skills. The actress playing Anna has to ‘have it all’ and ‘give it her best’ in order to present an endless range of emotions experienced by the character. Lynskey was a perfect choice for the role and shines brightly in her truly moving portrayal of Anna.
Watching the skillfully executed, challenging scenes made me think about the director’s input into bringing the complex characters to life. Both actors “have much praise for director Vreeke’s skill” writes Keith Loria in his article for DC Theatre Scene. Lynskey calls Vreeke an “extraordinary director,” and Russotto calls him “a real actor’s director, wonderfully flexible and open.” The three artists worked together before, Russotto with both the director and Lynskey. The actors’ on- stage chemistry is great and Vreeke’s craftsmanship can be seen and felt throughout the performance. So is the contribution of the rest of the production team, including Giorgos Tsappas (Set Design), Alexander Keen (Lighting Design), Aaron Fensterheim (Sound Design) and Ivania Stack (Costume Design).
Giorgos Tsappas’ set depicting a senior bureaucrat’s office remains unchanged throughout the one-act play, yet carries every twist and turn of the plot masterfully with the help of lighting and sound effects. A solid desk with a phone and a big armchair – symbols of the Director’s authority- and a simple chair facing it – signify the division of power and dictate the mood of the room. The occasional ominous ringtone of the phone heightens the tension, so is the light used strategically throughout the play. During one of the twists in the plot, Anna is seen sitting on the opulent desk and the Director perched on the visitors’ chair, his disturbed, sweaty face under a bright spotlight.
The dark reddish color of the walls seems to have been chosen to emphasize and signify a number of important aspects of the play and its context and fully agrees with its themes of communism, terror and death. Combined with light and sound, the color scheme adds to the intensity of the action and provides a right backdrop for the extreme emotions expressed on stage. The shadows of shutters projected on the wall and ceiling resemble prison bars, a reminder of the oppressiveness of the Soviet regime and the fact that no one, even its senior officials were safe from suspicion and imprisonment.
John Vreeke has been quoted saying that “audiences in DC are smart and have a focus on politics” and as such welcome material which is socially and politically challenging. The Letters is a political play and in the words of Carolyn Griffin is highly relevant in a present “highly political, very intense time.” It examines the psychology of totalitarianism and reveals damages caused to human relationships by exposing people to hypocrisies and power games based on fear and blackmail, themes so very current in today’s conflicted world.
Whilst the US governments of today and Stalin’s regime have nothing in common in terms of ideology and beliefs one cannot help making a connection in the area of any super power’s government interest in its citizens’ personal information. Michael Russotto said to Keith Loria: “as our government invades our lives a little bit more every day, as privacy and personal liberties disappear (…) the play provides a window into what happens with official over-reach”.
The play is an absolute ‘must see’ even for those not politically inclined. The opportunity to see great acting of two MetroStage favorites, to catch a glimpse of Stalin’s reign of terror, and to be moved by this spine-chilling and smart and gripping thriller should not be missed!
Running Time: 75 minutes, without an intermission.