The Letters
The Director (Michael Ray Wisely) tries to get better acquainted with Anna (Beth Wilmurt) in Aurora’s The Letters. Photo: Sarah Roland

For an exciting night at the theater, don’t miss The Letters at the 49-seat Harry’s UpStage, a new second stage at the Aurora Theatre Company.

Written by John W. Lowell (The Standby Lear, Autumn Canticle) and first staged in Los Angeles in 2009, The Letters is set in 1931 in a nameless Soviet government office. Anna (excellent Beth Wilmurt) is a shy and reserved bureaucrat who has been called to the office of the Director (first-rate Michael Ray Wisely — read Berkeleyside’s April 22 interview with Wisely).

No reason for the meeting has been given. Anna sits, nervous and withdrawn, while she tries to ascertain the subject of this rare meeting with her superior. After all, this is Stalinist Russia where paranoia is normal.

As Anna, Beth Wilmurt’s body is tense, her hands and jaw are clenched. She is anxious for the meeting to end. The scene has the aura of a Pinter play.

We learn that Anna works in the disinformation department. Her recent difficult assignment was to cleanse the letters of a famous Russian composer in order to erase its sexually explicit references to his homosexuality.

The burly Director, cordial and warm at first, is maddeningly indirect. While telephones go unanswered and intercoms are ignored, he chats sympathetically with Anna about her widowhood. Several times, the Director describes himself as a simple soldier, lacking the intellectual qualities of his subordinates. Despite his commanding exterior, Anna begins to view the Director as hostile and insecure. But the conversation is far from over. As the cat and mouse game continues (or is it Spy versus Spy?), revelations surface about secret dossiers, searches and surveillances.

Although the composer is not named in the play, Pyotr Tchaikovsky is the likely subject. In fact, a recent film biography of Tchaikovsky that was partly funded by the Russian government was made to conform to Russia’s 2014 anti-gay laws. Interestingly, The Letters, first produced in 2009, foretold this event.

Playwright John W. Lowell has said that an inspiration for his play was the impeachment (witch-hunt?) of President Bill Clinton. The government’s intrusion into private lives infuriated Lowell. In 2004, the U.S.’s torture of prisoners and later, Edward Snowden’s revelations, continued to fuel the subtext of political commentary in the drama. The Letters explores how governments manipulate the truth and use fear and mistrust as psychological controls.

I will not reveal the remarkable conclusion of the The Letters. I simply encourage you to see it.

The Letters runs through June 1. For information and tickets, visit the Aurora Theatre online.

Michael Ray Wisely: Grand dramas on everyday stages (04.22.14)

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Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...