Separated by thousands of miles and yet connected through hundreds of letters, Dear Jack, Dear Louise by Tony Award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig (Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, Lend Me a Tenor) follows the relationship of U.S. Army Captain Jack Ludwig and actress Louise Rabiner from June 1942 to May 1945. Navigating distance, uncertainty, delay, and the fact that they’ve never actually met, these two strangers find in each other and their letters a dependable place of solace when the rest of the world seems to be falling apart. In its world premiere at Arena Stage, Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise plumbs the depths of human courage, commitment, and connection when the world and your heart are at stake.
An intimate play with tremendous breadth, the title characters played by Jake Epstein (Jack) and Amelia Pedlow (Louise) kept the audience in breathless, rapt attention with everything from jovial anticipation to heart-stopping suspense. Pedlow, with her spirited demeanor and the affected speech of an aspirational actress/dancer in the 1940s, was instantly alive and buzzing with energy. Louise’s social acuity was more than enough to push the budding relationship into motion and Pedlow’s determined turn of phrase forged the distance between.
Epstein, on the other side of the extroversion spectrum, did an excellent job of capturing the pace of opening up to someone new. You saw his awkward insecurity and rigid shyness melt slowly into an unsteady confidence that ultimately ended with a poetic devotion characteristic of a soul wide open. Desperately trying to reconcile his sense of duty in a horrible war with his healer’s heart, Jack’s character was the truest example in the show of Ken Ludwig’s propensity to use humor in order to help us absorb serious moments, and Epstein’s deft fluidity in finding the balance between those opposing dispositions was outstanding.
In a set framed simply with two desks on either side of the stage, the actors conversed through their letters by looking straight out into the audience, inviting us into their romance. Each awkward comment, moment of newfound confidence/calculated flirty risk, and unsteady silence was reflected out towards us before it was sent across the stage to their counterpart. Presented as one long conversation pieced together from countless letters, Dear Jack, Dear Louise was effortlessly natural, playful, and sincere as these two strangers grew in affection under extraordinary circumstances.
The Director of these two, in essence, separate and yet interlocking plays was the fabulous Jackie Maxwell. Bringing decades of experience to this new work, Maxwell crafted a traditional letter correspondence into a lively and unceasing stream of kinship. Wrapping the entire production with a backdrop of what looked like worn stationery bearing the creases of time, distance, and countless re-reads was Set Design by Beowulf Boritt. Equally captivating was the slightly swaying column of flat, white shapes reminiscent of abstract crumpled pieces of paper suspended from the ceiling. Their subtle movements and then continuation on to the floor acted as letter-like steppingstones for the relationship unfolding. Rounding out the fantastic Production Team was Costume Design by Linda Cho, Lighting Design by Jason Lyons, Original Music and Sound Design by Lindsay Jones, and Wig Design by Charles G. Lapointe. Each design element added to the lyrical and yet deeply tactile nature of the production.
As pointed out by Jocelyn Clarke’s Dramaturg’s Note in the program, the art of letter writing has faded with the advent of modern communication technology and yet in Dear Jack, Dear Louise we are reminded of its incredible power. With mere sheets of paper and a bit of ink, these two strangers were able to create a tangible partnership that stitched together distance and time during an age when the world was displaced. An absolute must-see, Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise at Arena Stage both warms and stops your heart as it proves that the connection between two people is strongest in the face of the unknown when fortified by the written word.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise is playing through December 29, 2019, at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.