Being called in for an unexpected meeting with your boss is an inherently nerve-racking experience, no matter how good you are at your job. And when you work in a government ministry in the Soviet Union of the 1930s — where people routinely disappear for saying the wrong thing — it’s far more worrisome. That’s the setup for The Letters, a play by John W. Lowell that’s the inaugural production in Aurora Theatre Company’s new second stage, Harry’s UpStage.
Like Aurora’s recent Gidion’s Knot or TheatreWorks’ The North Pool a few years ago, The Letters is a tense two-person psychological suspense story that all takes place in one scene in one room. (Both of those plays also involved someone being called in for a meeting for reasons unknown.)
Anna (a reserved and wary Beth Wilmurt) works as an editor in a government office, censoring all kinds of documents to purge them of any undesirable or inconvenient elements. At the moment the play begins, she’s scrubbing the collected letters of “our greatest composer” clean of the “pornographic” elements that seem to be their main focus. When the nameless director of her department calls her into his office, she has no idea why she’s there, and he keeps her in suspense with uncomfortably personal small talk before coming to the point, and even then she can’t be sure if it’s really the point or some kind of test. But of what? Her fitness for her job? Her loyalty? Is he coming on to her? What’s going on here? Michael Ray Wisely is jovial and upbeat as the director, but always with an unsettling edge that keeps Anna on her toes. He toys with her, saying something to put her at her ease and then following it up by hinting at possible danger.
The new stage is an intimate space and director Mark Jackson exploits it by setting the action in a slightly claustrophobic, boxlike room, with a low ceiling that the people in the higher back rows can look over at the pile of chairs stashed away behind the set. At first the room is entirely closed off with large drawn window blinds, and when they’re first opened the slats create a distancing, distorting effect. Maya Linke’s set is a tidy, old-fashioned office, with prominent portraits of Stalin and Lenin on display. Costumer Ashley Rogers puts both in shades of brown, the director a sharp business suit and Anna a drab sweater-and-skirt combo.
Jackson and the cast keep the tension taut through all the twists and turns and just-one-more-things, helping skew the viewer’s understanding of what’s going on while the stakes seem to get higher and higher. Unfortunately the final twist is also the most labored; it takes a long time to explain and lacks the impact of much of what’s gone on before.
The Letters is very much a period piece, a 21st century American indictment of the early 20th century Soviet culture of paranoia, long after the judgment of history is already in. Decades later, we can comfortably agree that it was a terrible time without drawing any particular lessons for us today. Any parallels to contemporary surveillance culture can only make the present-day USA look benign in comparison. In a way, the timing of the production is unfortunate, when Russia is making a sudden reemergence as a geopolitical adversary under the authoritarian rule of a Soviet-era KGB veteran. In a play that’s partly about the things the ruling regime would have its citizens forget, it’s interesting that this is a view of Soviet Russia that is the most familiar to those of us in the West.
The Letters runs through June 1, 2014 at Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit auroratheatre.org.
All photos by Sarah Roland.