Playwright: John W. Lowell. At: Writers' Theatre at Books on Vernon, 664 Vernon Ave., Glencoe . Tickets: 847-242-6000; www.writerstheater.org; $35-$70 Runs through: March 3
The instant that actress Kate Fry uncomfortably walks onstage with a worried look in her eye, you know that you're in for a tense drama with Writers' Theatre's Midwest premiere of John W. Lowell's 2009 drama The Letters.
Fry plays an archivist editor named Anna, who works in an unnamed Soviet Union city in 1931. With framed portraits of Soviet leaders Lenin and Stalin looming large in Jack Magaw's austere office set, you're instantly guessing that Anna is the mouse who has unwillingly entered the cat's den.
Sure enough, The Director (a swaggering Mark L. Montgomery) soon bounds in with some initially good news of promotion for Anna. But we soon find out that The Director is really out to extract some crucial information from Anna.
It seems that some duplicate copies of historical and sexually explicit letters by "the nation's most famous composer" have been made, and The Director is sparing no means necessary to stop them from leaving the country and tarnishing the nation's cultural reputation around the world. (It's safe to guess that the composer is Tchaikovsky, since it is known that 20th-century Soviet censors did their utmost to erase his homosexuality from biographies and other historical records.)
So what's on display with The Letters is a tightly wound confrontation where Fry's Anna is desperately second-guessing her responses to the interrogations of Montgomery's increasingly aggravated and worked-up Director. It's a battle of power and wills that richly draws the audience in thanks to Lowell's finely plotted writing and the artistic forces of Writers' Theatre who bring the play vividly to life.
Director Kimberly Senior skillfully guides her actors through the text's nervous and angry emotions. Senior also smartly stages the production with the audience on two sides of the action, so we're there to be the constant spying observers of the characters who are forever in fear that they're being watched and followed.
Although The Letters only features two actors, Lowell's play conjures up a whole community of co-workers and family who become intrinsically part of the drama. The sound-effects design of Christopher Kriz also aids to the intensity, giving a sometimes ominous suggestion of outside people who are waiting to charge the two characters who are doing their utmost to either conceal or expose vital information.
With The Letters, Writers' Theatre definitely has an intimate and dramatic winner on its hands. Audiences who love suspense and psychological dynamics shouldn't miss it.