Review: Back in the USSR: Street Corner Arts' THE LETTERS Succeeds

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST Plays City Theatre Austin June 3 - 18 John Lowell's THE LETTERS, in its regional premiere courtesy of Street Corner Arts, is a two person, one act play. It begins in one place, takes us on a journey, and ends up in a place unrecognizable from where it started, all without leaving one governmental archives office in 1930s Stalinist Russia. Through one seventy-five minute long interaction, Lowell's dialogue and Michael Stuart's direction capture the utter paranoia and perpetual fear felt by citizens and leaders alike living in the Soviet Regime.

Under the watchful eye of Lenin and Stalin's portraits hung on the wall, we first meet Anna (Claire Grasso), a competent editor working for the state. She nervously waits for the director of the archives, who's only ever known as "Director" (Michael Stuart-yes, the director plays "The Director"). Why they're meeting, we're unaware, but it becomes clears the Director takes a special, voyeuristic interest in Anna which unsettles her. With his penetrating gaze and unending questions, he applies pressure to Anna from the moment they begin conversing, and does not let up. The audience finds themselves recoiling along with Anna as Grasso and Stuart's body language together wonderfully conveys this uncomfortable push and pull. Stuart physically towers over Grasso, and he graciously takes advantage of this height difference to solidify the power imbalance at play. He studies Grasso's face when she looks away, leans in and stands uncomfortably close. As the characters sit, stand, or kneel, every movement has meaning and power flies back and forth between them like a tennis match.

It's soon revealed that the Director has a position open he wants Anna to fill. She's proven herself working on a sensitive case involving the redaction of salacious letters from a respected Russian composer (THE LETTERS is a fictional account of the real-life efforts of the Soviet government to censor the private letters of the composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky). Discussing these letters marks a change in the meeting as the conversation between Anna and the Director turns into verbal warfare. Searing personal revelations stop them in their tracks and heighten their uncertainty. At the end we're not quite sure of the truth, but both characters land in a place they didn't think they'd end up.

Street Corner Arts' production of THE LETTERS draws its strength from the anticipatory tension it's able to build. One solitary set and simple costumes stay unchanged so the dialogue and the tense atmosphere created between the two characters shines. The audience feels something brewing just beneath the surface, and Grasso and Stuart's performances invite you to stay and find out exactly what that is. Stuart gives the Director an air of unimpeachable confidence, which only makes his descent into doubt more fascinating to watch. Grasso plays Anna with a stoic caution, but as Anna's verbally shaken during the non-stop conversation, her subtle flashes of strength and cunning are truly exciting to see.

While both actors make the characters their own with insightful nuance and depth, the terrifying, inescapable atmosphere of paranoia both characters face remains unchanged. Street Corner Arts' production of THE LETTERS succeeds because of this. You don't know how lucky you are to have the next two weekends to be back in the USSR with THE LETTERS.

Photo Credit: Benjamin Summers

The Letters
by John Lowell
Street Corner Arts

April 05 - April 20, 2019 at 8 p.m.

Hyde Park Theatre
511 West 43rd Street
Austin, TX, 78751

Tickets $17 to $22 plus service fees; available on-line HERE


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