ORLANDO — At the opening of John W. Lowell’s suspenseful play “The Letters,” a young woman we later learn is named Anna walks into a small office, then sits down — and waits.
And, for several more minutes, waits some more.
She is tense, and nervous. She pulls out a cigarette and borrows a lighter from the office desk, but it doesn’t work. She begins to fidget and pace around the room. There’s no question that Anna doesn’t want to be there.
Then the man identified only as the director walks in. Is Anna in trouble, maybe about to be fired? The director seems very by-the-book, but not without an occasional flash of humor, even charm. Anna is respectful, business-like – and, in those first few minutes, quite apparently on edge. We keep waiting for the bad news to fall in her lap.
The director, though, seems pleased to deliver some positive news: the agency has recognized Anna’s talents – she’s an editor in a government bureau — and they’re promoting her to a supervisory role. It’s a big step up for a woman who recently lost her young husband and now lives a quiet life alone.
There’s something quite odd, then, in the way Anna doesn’t seem the least bit excited or pleased with the news. If anything, she remains apprehensive. And it’s also worth noting that the director appears fully aware of that – and even seems to relish it.
“The Letters” is set in the summer of 1931, in an unnamed Russian city, in the office of the Ministry Director. If it seems peculiar that Anna would have so many misgivings about being the right person for this new supervisory role, we eventually come to understand why, in the director’s interest in one of Anna’s coworkers …. and in a series of rather graphic and sexually explicit letters from a prominent Russian composer. It’s clear that Anna is being set up by the director, that he has a different agenda than simply honoring her hard work and devotion to duty.
But as it turns out, Anna’s nervous demeanor is a mask for a rather more cunning personality – one that perhaps understands the overall situation a bit better than we had at first assumed she did.
“The Letters,” which is now being produced at the Mad Cow Theatre in Orlando, initially feels like a situation any one of us could easily relate to: being called into the boss’ office, not knowing if we’re about to get good news, or bad.
But it quickly becomes clear that the play, set during the repressive era of Joseph Stalin, offers a far more harrowing scenario: here, the stakes are not a demotion, or simply being fired, but something potentially far worse. And as we watch the cat-and-mouse play between the director who is strategically trying to get as much information as he can, pitted against a scared worker who has to choose her words so very delicately, we know the outcome could be extremely tragic. That helps build the suspense considerably.
Anna is an editor who reconditions historical documents to ensure they are suitable – including politically – for public consumption, and what has come to the director’s attention is a series of personal letters written by one of Russia’s famous composers. The letters contain graphic descriptions of sexual encounters, mostly homosexual ones, that the director finds disgusting. He believes they would stain the image of the motherland if they got out. Anna, as it turns out, knows quite a bit about those letters – though just how much isn’t clear until the very end.
“The Letters” is a short play, clocking in at 75 minutes with no intermission, but it manages a superb feat: to paint a very grim, chilling portrait of a brutal regime, while at the same time being vastly entertaining for its smart dialogue and clever interplay between two characters that we assume – wrongly, perhaps? – are mismatched in terms of power and authority.
Brian Brightman does a fantastic job as the director, a man who rose up through the ranks of security and does not consider himself an intellectual, and probably has quite a bit of disdain for those who are. He has street smarts, and prides himself on that, and Brightman is superb in the way he convincingly shows the director exploding in anger one moment – then cracking a light joke a second later. He’s a ruthless interrogator who feels he knows how to weed information out of Anna.
Jennifer Christa Palmer is a fine match as Anna. Her initially hesitant answers and nervous pacing give way to someone who understands the mind games that the director is playing. Her transformation from fearful worker to a figure much richer in character is convincing.
It’s also interesting that Brightman looks a bit like a young Vladimir Putin – the president of Russia who is 2013 supported passage of an “anti-homosexual propaganda” law that bans so-called propaganda of “non-traditional sexual relations,” including gay pride events, rallies, and other forms of information sharing.
The fact that Brightman’s director conjures up images of the Putin who has been taking Russia back down a dark and repressive path only adds to the resonance of seeing Howell’s play today. It’s the kind of story that Alfred Hitchcock would have loved – but one that seems more significant today, as Putin just ignored international warnings and began sending a 280-truck convoy into eastern Ukraine, a move that Ukraine’s national security chief called a “direct invasion.”
With that in mind, “The Letters” can be read as smart entertainment – or a cautionary warning for where we are today.
“The Letters” is playing now through Sept. 21 in the Zehngebot Stonerock Theater at Mad Cow, 54 W. Church St. Shows are at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 3 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets start at $35.75. Call 407-297-8788 to purchase tickets.
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