Review “The Letters”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Writers’ Theatre, Books on Vernon, 664 Vernon Ave., Glencoe
When: through March 3
Tickets: $35-$70
Phone: 847-242-6000

Now that Writers’ Theatre is proposing to build a shiny new theater in Glencoe, I think Artistic Director Michael Halberstam and his cohorts deserve a special shout out for their consistently canny programming in the tiny space at the back of Books on Vernon. Especially since the opening of the slightly larger Tudor Court house, they’ve turned their cramped original home into a showcase for one-, two-, and occasionally three-person productions that benefit immensely from the intimate setting.

The Midwest premiere of John W. Lowell’s 2009 “The Letters” is a case in point, thanks to Kimberly Senior’s taut direction and the splendid acting of Kate Fry and Mark L. Montgomery. Set in the office of the unnamed Director of an unnamed Ministry in an unnamed Russian city in the summer of 1931, the tense psychological thriller unfolds with the audience up close on either side, the portraits of Lenin and Stalin (then in power for half-a-dozen years) staring down at us from Jack Magaw’s impeccably detailed set.

At the beginning of the intermission-less play, Anna has been called to The Director’s office but doesn’t know why. Without giving away too much, it looks like he’s promoting her to head of her department, which is in charge of preparing works for publication by ruthlessly censoring them, for example a famous poet’s pornographic letters. Anna recommends one of her co-workers for the promotion instead, and as The Director tries to draw her out about her life, she becomes increasingly wary and unsettled. We, too, sense that something is not as it seems, a suspicion fueled by sinister hints he drops about the morning’s “unpleasantness.”

In this pervasive atmosphere of corruption and paranoia, where no one tells the truth for fear of retaliation, the game of cat-and-mouse soon escalates. The Director, a former cavalry officer filled with envy and contempt for the intellectuals under him, resorts to a mixture of flattery, accusation, intimidation and sexual innuendo to elicit the information he wants, and Montgomery captures his sleazy confidence in this own power perfectly, right down to the sneering smile and bad haircut. Fry’s growing panic as the taciturn Anna is palpable in everything she says – and everything she doesn’t. Her body language, even the way tears fill her eyes, speaks volumes.

But there’s more than just terror here. As The Director pushes her to the breaking point, Anna musters her inner strength. Part of the pleasure — and the payoff — of “The Letters” is that we know this smart but ostensibly obedient woman (the only suggestion of nonconformity is the patterned blouse under her conservative suit) is going to turn the tables on her abusive boss. We just don’t know exactly when or how. And the way she uses his own cockiness against him is a masterstroke.