Surveillance, suspicion and misinformation evoked tension and paranoia during the Invisible Theatre’s opening Wednesday of its 43rd season with John W. Lowell’s 2009 “The Letters.”
A departure from the theater’s often-sentimental fare, “The Letters” is a two-actor, 80-minute quiet thriller of intrigue set in a ministry director’s office in the 1931 Soviet Union.
From the moment the lights go up on the monochromatic, sepia-toned office set — splashed with the bold red Soviet flag with its glinting gold hammer and sickle — a feeling of oppression percolates through the intimate theater. Portraits of Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin seem to be watching every move.
Anna, a buttoned-down young widow and seemingly good-girl civil servant, is the competent editor of information within the ministry. Her job is propaganda — to redact and rewrite documents that might be damaging to the state.
When she is unexpectedly summoned to the director’s office, she is curious, cautious and clearly uncomfortable. She rather expects a dressing down. When the director arrives — late — their discussion begins with what he calls a “pleasant conversation.”
The conversation seems to become an interview for a promotion for which Anna wasn’t aware she was being considered. When the two begin to discuss her current project — censoring a prominent composer’s personal papers, letters and diaries to hide his homosexuality — the true intent of that “pleasant conversation” is revealed: It is an interrogation of an internal scandal that’s packed with revelations of her actions and indiscretions. She’s being “monitored.”
Lori Hunt, a frequent comedic actor on Tucson stages, shows her dramatic chops as Anna. From the moment she steps on stage in her brown-toned, modest, functional skirt and blouse, and, of course, sensible shoes, she exudes competence. With a stiff backbone, she deftly and succinctly responds the director’s queries and comments — saying too much could put her at risk. She squirms at the director’s inappropriate touches and neck rub, and displays strength as schemes are revealed and the power shifts. Hunt’s beguiling, expressive face reveals a range of emotions.
Roberto Guajardo, as the director, does evil well. With his Lenin-like mustache and goatee, and a brown suit with vest, he captures the essence of a committed-to-the-state soldier assigned to protect the state. Guajardo rapidly fires questions and his repartee is loaded with subtext that reveals his character’s underlying insecurities and his fear-inducing intent.
Guajardo also does creepy well. The audience seemed to flinch along with Hunt/Anna when he touched her.
Director Susan Claassen’s strength in this production is the use of invading personal space and the actor’s posture to show power and the shift of that power.
“The Letters” is an engrossing piece that is a perfect fit for the up-close Invisible Theatre.