Instead of a curtain, the window blinds open before the audience to reveal a plainly dressed woman nervously peering out towards the spectators. The horizontally-fixed lines of the blinds, almost resembling a prison cell, expose the sterile office environment. The uncomfortable silence of the woman trying to light a cigarette and portraits of Stalin and Lenin hanging on the walls establish the repressive atmosphere of 1930s Soviet Union.
In the play “The Letters,” running at the Aurora Theater through June 1, the nameless director of a censorship ministry (Michael Ray Wisely) summons the woman from the opening scene, Anna (Beth Wilmurt), to his office for an unspecified purpose. The Director quickly detects Anna’s pensive demeanor and shaky voice and rebuffs her questions about the meeting by making small talk. His initial use of red herrings to misdirect Anna allows the audience to step into her shoes and feel bewildered by the possible ramifications of this mysterious meeting. The suspense in these situations, the phone ringing interrupting the lingering silences, stems from the lack of information given to the audience.
Neither character attempts to show his or her hand early on; the opening lines of dialogue between the two establish their conflicting personalities. The Director, harboring an anti-intellectual and practical attitude towards his line of work, hopes to promote the more bookish Anna. But, his praises come with snide connotations, like when he calls her “the intellectual equivalent of the perfect foot soldier.” The development of these clashing ideologies demarcates the hierarchical roles within the ministry where Anna must either accept the Director’s decisions or suffer consequences for her disobedience. Thus, the characters’ stakes become higher, creating a sense of tension that consistently builds over the course of the play.
The censorship of the sexually-explicit letters exposing the homosexuality of the famous Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky becomes the purpose behind this meeting. As the objective of the Director and the parties involved become clearer, the spatiality of the two characters shifts to a more confrontational arrangement, with Anna standing across from the Director’s desk pleading her innocence in the mysterious disappearance of the letters.
As a one-act play involving only two characters, “The Letters” puts more emphasis on the direction and performance of the actors. Michael Ray Wisely plays the Director with the charisma of a leader and zeal of a dogmatic Russian vanguard. This nuanced performance allows the audience to be wooed by his facetious remarks and hypothetical questions meant to assuage Anne’s paranoia. Meanwhile, Beth Wilmurt astutely portrays the soft-spoken and perceptive Anna, whose words pique the audience’s curiosity not with their substance but with their implications. The two form an engaging dialectical dynamic that drives the plot of the play.
Playwright John W. Lowell, who was interested in the relationship between state involvement and personal matters, drew inspiration from the Monica Lewinsky scandal and a biography of Tchaikovsky. Other than the casual invocation of Tchaikovsky and the portraits of Stalin and Lenin, there are too few moments in the play to differentiate the setting as such a tumultuous and pivotal era in Russian history. The script also relies on a predictable and familiar twist that becomes part of the deus ex machina-driven ending.
With Russia’s staunchly homophobic laws becoming more prominent in the media and debates emerging over the presence of the NSA, “The Letters” has the potential to become more relevant and thematically resonant with viewers. But, the cat-and-mouse game between the Director and Anna doesn’t add anything new to Russian politics regarding homosexuality or Orwellian notions of totalitarianism. As a result, the denouement leaves us, like Anne, unconvinced and with more questions than answers.