John W. Lowell didn’t realize in 2009 when his play “The Letters” received its first major production just how relevant his dialogue thriller would become. Set in an unnamed city of the Soviet Union in 1931, Lowell imagined a cat-and-mouse confrontation between a Soviet minister of information and an office worker who may have misplaced an important batch of letters.
Death or indefinite imprisonment could be the fate of the guilty party.
“The Letters” lit up regional theaters across the nation, reminding audiences of uneasy reports about U.S. government programs to spy on its citizens. Tucson’s Invisible Theatre has scheduled its production of Lowell’s “The Letters” opening next week.
“Every time I turn around, it becomes more relevant for a different reason,” said Lowell, on the phone from San Francisco.
He started with Guantanamo, then quickly checked off the IRS, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency and sounded like he could have kept on going.
But what inspired him to write “The Letters,” innocently enough, was reading a biography of Tchaikovsky that asserted the Soviets were actively censoring the composer’s papers to hide his homosexuality. While at the same time in the late 1990s Lowell was following on the nightly news the story of U.S. government officials digging deep into the personal affairs of President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
What bothered the playwright was an insidious reality: the state will never hesitate to defend itself by intruding into the most private matters of its citizens.
“It is the government’s job to keep secrets, and the people’s job to uncover them, that’s really what this play is about,” said Lowell. “The importance of balancing the government’s legitimate need for some secrecy versus the public’s right to know everything.”
“The play was never meant to be about the Soviet Union,” Lowell added. “But what upsets me most is how the play keeps being so relevant today.”
The genius of “The Letters” is Lowell’s talent for turning political theory into biting dialogue cleverly shaded so the upper hand in this office interrogation keeps shifting back and forth between the director and the worker.
This is not an oppressive world of evil bad guys getting the best of well-intentioned good ones. The worker does have a few cards she can play against the Soviet minister, but to win she must play them carefully — which adds more tension to the game.
To present this 80-minute two-hander, Susan Claassen is directing Roberto Guajardo as the Director and Lori Hunt as the worker, Anna. In the beginning, the Director seems friendly, so Anna is immediately suspicious of his real intentions.
Soon enough their conversation becomes a mine field of psychological ploys as the roles of hunter and hunted flip back and forth. Copies of the letters of a famous Russian composer are missing. A colleague has been arrested. How much does Anna know?
In turn she wonders how much the Director knows. He could have his own ulterior motives. Dare she try to find out?
“To me, what’s important,” said Lowell, “Is recognizing that both sides feel there is validity in their positions. The Director isn’t all evil and Anna isn’t all good.”