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Aurora Theater presents “The Letters”
2014-04-24
 

Letters Photo

 

Two people alone onstage for eighty minutes. Sound like a recipe for tedium?  Not if the play is John W. Lowell’s The Letters, now at Aurora Theatre.

The production grips you at the start and holds you till the end.

It takes place in a drab private office furnished with a big desk, three battered file cabinets and a few chairs. There’s nothing to suggest the coming drama, except the two framed portraits on the wall: Lenin and Stalin, wearing smiles that are both triumphant and sinister.

We’re in Russia in the 1930s, it turns out, at the height of Stalin’s purges. The office is in the Soviet state’s propaganda and disinformation division. Anna, a woman of perhaps 35, has been summoned by its Director, though she has no idea why, and when she enters his empty office, we feel her ill-ease as she opens a pair of floor-to-ceiling wooden blinds that separate her from the audience.

Peering through them, she’s like a prisoner in a cell, and she is indeed caged, we soon learn, as are most citizens of this repressive regime. Her few freedoms depend on saying and doing the right things, though what they might be is often frighteningly unclear. When the Director, an expert at ominous affability and at making underlings squirm, strides in, he puts her to the test.

He claims he wants to promote her, but he has another agenda, involving the letters of Russia’s most famous composer (think Tchaikovsky). Anna’s job is to censor them of sexual content, but has someone been undermining the purge?  Has she herself participated in treason? A cat and mouse game ensues – but who is the cat and who is the mouse? Can anyone win?

The Letters inaugurates Aurora Theatre’s new, 49-seat playspace, Harry’s Upstage, in its Dashow Wing. It’s an auspicious, intensely watchable beginning to the company’s expanded repertoire; the play’s small cast and tight focus are perfectly suited to intimate theater. 

Mark Jackson directs the drama with subtlety and tact, aided by a fine support team: Maya Linke (set), Ashley Rogers (costumes), Joe D’Emilio (lighting) and Kirsten Royston, (properties).

As Anna, slender, sculpted Beth Wilmurt brings just the right febrile quality to the role; she’s as coiled as a spring. As the Director, Michael Ray Wisely is the boss you never want to work under: self-centered, heartless and smugly pleased to watch Anna twist on the hook he thinks he’s set in her. Is she hooked, however, or has he inadvertently set the hook somewhere nearer to home?

A shadowy figure seen only dimly through the glass of his office door settles the question.

 

—Robert Hall

 

The Letters plays at Aurora Theatre until May 25. The smart comedy-drama, Wittenberg, occupies its main stage, to be followed in June by the company’s 2013-14 season closer, David Mamet’s modern classic, American Buffalo.  For tickets and information call 843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Photo: The Director (Michael Ray Wisely) tries to get better acquainted with Anna (Beth Wilmurt) in Aurora Theatre Company’s Professional Bay Area Premiere of The Letters. Photo by Sarah Roland.

 
     
   
 
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