Dear Jack, Dear Louise,
Perhaps I should address you as “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Ludwig”, but after seeing the world premiere of your son’s latest play at Arena Stage, I feel that I already know you. Judging from the reaction of the audience, everyone else does too.
If, as is often said, the art of letter writing is dead, “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” is its sweetest eulogy, for it traces the years of your WWII correspondence from awkward acquaintance to friendly affection to love. Upcoming generations can’t know and may never understand the seductive, vexing appeal of having to wait for a response, a letter, or a first meeting, but for those of us who remember, it all comes intensely alive.
Surely those war years of anxiety and headlines punctuated by the highs of getting mail and the lows of postal black-outs must have seemed interminable. But the hour and a half during which we hear your innocent inquiries, your veiled flirtations, the inevitable jealousies and the heart-on-the sleeve revelations, flies by. I don’t know how it was for you. I hope it was like this.
I’m certain of one thing: you would be delighted with what the cast and designers have done with your story. Beginning with director, Jackie Maxwell, the picture has been created for us in colorful, generous strokes. Every detail is intelligently thought out; every nuance has a reason.
You would be especially happy with the actors who create your lives on stage. It begins in 1942 when Jack was stationed at Medford, Ore., Louise was an aspiring showgirl in NYC, and Jack’s parents knew a nice girl that he should write to. Remember that? Jake Epstein and Amelia Pedlow bring such clarity and sympathy to their parts that by the end, one must shake off the illusion like a dream just to remember that this was an artistic representation.
I understand that about eighty percent of the dialogue comes directly from your letters to each other. Your son Ken, who obviously knew you very well, knew exactly what to emphasize and where to pull back. From those choices and the actors’ precise interpretations, the portraits emerge. Jack – the doctor drafted into the Army as a captain; pragmatic, private and a little shy, comfortable with the hard sciences but not with uncertainty. Doesn’t dance; not inclined to learn. Louise – dancer, singer, striving to bust loose, outgoing and funny, warm, direct in her own circuitous way. She’ll dance circles around Jack before either of them knows what’s happened.
Beowulf Boritt created a set that puts them in the same world under nine diaphanous clouds but separates them into their own little orbits – Jack with his orderly Army gear and foot locker, Louise with her girlish vanity and decorative changing screen tossed with casually strewn clothes. Jason Lyons’ masterful lighting design does more than just accentuate the conversations back and forth between letters. It warms or cools the mood as needed, and in one dread-filled scene, permeates the moment with shadows.
Costume designer Linda Cho has done a fine job of staying within your personalities and period without tripping on the wire of stylish clichés. Lindsay Jones’ original music and sound design subtly supports each scene’s details and, where music is needed, brings the 1940s to the front. You were in the middle of it, and thanks to this integrated artistry, so are we.
We all know Ken Ludwig as the much-honored master of comic farce – “Lend Me A Tenor” is my personal favorite. But what he has done with “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” is something quite different. It’s funny all right, as two nice young people trying to get to know each other at a distance and circling each other looking for the proper hold must always be funny. But you are his parents and it’s obvious he loves you and brings that love to this play.
And it’s astonishing how the small incidental facts of people’s lives, when enshrined in art, take on a life of their own. Easily half of the play makes us laugh out loud – but at what? Recognition of the little weaknesses and vanities and fears that we all strain to tamp down. Fear of what our meddling aunts might say to her when she visits his family for the first time. Jealousy trying not to be jealous when an old girlfriend shows up in his unit. Pride trying to outrank love and failing miserably.
Whatever it is, I’m so glad Jack’s parents knew a nice girl for him to write to. And I’m so glad she wrote back and that they finally met and fell in love and married and had a son named Ken who can write plays like this.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.
WANT TO GO?
What: “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” by Ken Ludwig
Where: Arena Stage
1101 Sixth St. SW
Call: (202) 554-9066 or visit www.arenastage.org
Playing through Dec. 29