Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Authoritarian tango


A character known only the Director (Michael Ray Wisely) tries to charm a wary subordinate (Beth Wilmurt) in The Letters, set in the 1930s Soviet Union and now at Aurora Theatre's new Harry's Upstage. Photo: Sarah Roland
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Attention must be paid. And, dear comrades, is it ever in The Letters. The small sea of heads in the rows in front of me at Aurora Theatre's newly unveiled second stage never wavered from pinpoint focus toward the stage. John W. Lowell's 85-minute play is an intricate cat-and-mouse game played out in the inscrutably authoritarian world of 1930s Soviet Union. If history is repeating itself, that is for another discussion, because when Lowell wrote the play, it was just as George W. Bush was looking into Vladimir Putin's soul and seeing sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows.

In The Letters, set in a bland office of an unspecified agency, a character known only as the Director has summoned a low-level bureaucrat who is visibly ill at ease at this rare request. The Director is full of easygoing chatter toward the frumpy Anna, but even his seemingly innocuous questions provoke responses from Anna that are so carefully hedged that they convey hints of hostility. "It's such an informative face," the Director says of Anna's utterly deadpan expression.

Lowell cleverly reveals the Director's true motivations in gradually increasing doses, and Anna begins denying accusations yet to be made. Among her assignments is to redact anything in letters and diaries that suggests a famed Russian composer (unnamed, but think Tchaikovsky) was an "invert," the term of the times for homosexual. It's been a challenging assignment, Anna admits, for all that can be left of some of his letters are the salutation and the complimentary close. The Director finds this revolting, while Anna subtly suggests the correspondence could in fact be endearing. But that is not the issue; it's that copies of the uncensored letters have gone missing, and the Director desperately needs them retrieved.

The play is schematic by design, and director Mark Jackson's production confidently hits the beats laid out by the playwright. As the Director, Michael Ray Wisely offers an oleaginous charm laced with sudden thorns, while Beth Wilmurt plays Anna with palpable terror that finds its own thorns to thrust.

Set designer Maya Linke has tidily provided the necessary office works in the small rectangle that is the stage in Harry's Upstage, a comfortable, professionally outfitted space with tiered seating. Aurora Theatre's main auditorium is known for its intimacy, and this new venue is an even more intimate variation on that. A tense, terse play like The Letters is an excellent introduction to this welcome new venue.


The Letters will run at Aurora Theatre's Harry's UpStage through June 1. Tickets are $28-$32. Call (510) 843-4822 or go to


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