‘The Letters’ explores life beneath state control in Soviet Russia
While some will stop at nothing to hide the truth, others will let nothing stop them from revealing it. Either way, there is a price to pay.
John W. Lowell’s play, “The Letters,” takes viewers back to Soviet Russia, circa 1931. When love letters surface between a famous Russian composer and his various homosexual paramours, the government embarks on a campaign to hide the evidence so as not to bring disrepute to the State. Anna, a ministry employee, is mysteriously called into the director’s office, where she is at first offered a promotion—but the exchange subtly morphs into a deadly cat-and-mouse game.
“The Letters” opens Friday, Oct. 7 at Center Stage in Santa Cruz, where it will run through Saturday, Oct. 22. Under the direction of Al Muller, the play features Brian Spencer (who is also the producer) as the ministry director, as well as Helene Simkin Jara as Anna.
“I’ve directed lots of stuff, many genres, lots of musicals—I like to laugh and feel good,” says Muller. “But I also see theater as such an important catalyst to understand and discuss important issues. This play raises questions that you carry with you beyond the final bows.”
And though the play examines a totalitarian regime in Moscow in the 1930s, Lowell finished his first draft of the play following Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998. He explains, “Over the years, I became increasingly disturbed at the way that private actions between consenting adults had become matters of State.”
The playwright adds that he was appalled during the President Bush years when the United States employed techniques of incarceration, interrogation and torture that would have been denounced had they been employed by the former Soviet Union. “The play is about, ultimately, what happens when private behaviors conflict with totalitarian tactics.”
“John Lowell’s plays have a lot to say,” says Muller. “In a time when people want to go to the theater to be coddled and feel warm and fuzzy, this play is more for the thinking folk. With this play, you could launch a study of the politics of the time, history, censorship and art because it touches so many corners of life.”
He adds that despite the fact that the play deals with heavy material, it’s not a downer: “It’s thought-provoking and beautifully written so it’s really engaging.”
Though there are only two characters the audience views on stage, there are two other characters that are spoken about but never seen. One of these is an underling to the director who has been stealing documents from the ministry.
“It all boils down to the secret nature of the work,” says Muller. “The director refers to the people who come in and do their work and then leave as cockroaches—a nasty indictment of loyalty.”
In addition to directing the production, Muller designed the sets for the show.
“The set is quite realistic—a structure that hints at shadows, things that are not totally revealed,” he explains. “The colors are cold—grays, blues. The director of ministry’s office is not a nice place to go to. It also needs to look a little thrown together. He’s not necessarily high on the food chain, so he has leftover furniture that has wear and tear. The physical environment resonates with the emotions that are happening—the coldness and callousness of larger society.”
To some degree, this story can be viewed as a cautionary tale, says Muller. “It’s relevant to today. It’s always our major concern in living in a democracy. When we have freedoms, there’s always the possibility of losing them.”
He adds, “Look at what happens when you go to the airport. Now when you go the airport they can scan your body and see through your clothes. You can’t get much worse than that.”
“The Letters” runs Oct. 7-22 at Center Stage, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $12 at brownpapertickets.com or $15 at the door (cash or check only).