Review: Fall in Love with DEAR JACK, DEAR LOUISE at Arena Stage

By: Dec. 08, 2019
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Review: Fall in Love with DEAR JACK, DEAR LOUISE at Arena Stage
Jake Epstein (Jack Ludwig) and Amelia Pedlow (Louise Rabiner) in Ken Ludwig's Dear Jack, Dear Louise

"You must learn some of my philosophy. Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure."

- Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice

Esteemed playwright Ken Ludwig referenced this famous line from Pride and Prejudice on the opening night of the world premiere of his newest play, Dear Jack, Dear Louise, at Arena Stage this week. And, indeed, it's easy to see why he would apply this philosophy to his latest work.

Based on the true story of Ludwig's parents' letters and courtship during World War II, Dear Jack, Dear Louise is a lovingly told and timeless romance. Captain Jacob "Jack" Ludwig begins writing to Louise Rabiner in 1942 at the suggestion of their fathers, and the two exchange regular letters through the end of the war in 1945. Over their letters, the two drop their formalities and become friends and confidants, and eventually fall in love. Jack opens up about how deeply the war is affecting him and finds joy in Louise's successes, while Louise gains a strong support for her acting career and in turn provides comfort to Jack as he struggles with the darkness he faces each day. Through their letters, the audience can't help but fall in love as readily as the characters themselves do, and Ludwig's beautiful, moving script injects such a strong emotionality that, even knowing there's a happy ending, it's impossible not to feel the anxiety the characters feel as their attempts to meet are dashed by the realities of war, career, and family. When the two finally meet, the relief and hope is palpable throughout the theater.

Ludwig's play, though about a particular moment in his personal history as well as our collective history, also resonates today in other ways. It's a reminder of who we are and who we can be - not just as individuals, but as a nation. Louise is a passionate, driven woman with a tremendous capacity for compassion. Jack is set on making his mark on the world by helping others, and often notes that his role in the war as a medic is not to destroy, but to heal. Together, their relationship and outlook on the world reminds us of the resilience of those who came before us, and of their hopes for a brighter world. It's a timely reminder of what we should strive to become, individually and as a country.

Review: Fall in Love with DEAR JACK, DEAR LOUISE at Arena Stage
Jake Epstein (Jack Ludwig) and Amelia Pedlow (Louise Rabiner) in Ken Ludwig's Dear Jack, Dear Louise

Jake Epstein's Jack is initially shy and awkward, and it's a delight to watch the character bloom - as he opens up with Louise and reveals more of himself, the audience starts to see him more fully as well. We watch him begin to tell jokes, admit his frustrations over the war, and show passion for things despite his earlier protests that he doesn't feel passionately about anything; by the time he excitedly recalls a passage from a biography about Churchill, he has wholly endeared himself to Louise and the audience, and there's a satisfaction in seeing him grow from the quietly reserved man to a full, loving person. Epstein's masterful portrayal of Jack's evolution is stunning, but he also manages to continue to surprise the audience with his emotional depth as Jack travels to Europe and faces the horrors of the war head-on; there were a few scenes in the second act when his anguish is particularly breathtaking.

As Louise, Amelia Pedlow's vibrant portrayal is the joy of the show. While Jack goes through a clear evolution, Louise is immediately bright, bubbly, and humorous. Initially, she serves as a foil to Jack's formal and curt nature, but as she draws him out we see more of her as well; her revelations are more subtle, but equally as strong. We watch her struggle with her career, her frustrations on Jack's behalf, and her own vulnerabilities that she initially hides under bombast and optimism. Pedlow's range is immediately on display when Louise prepares for an audition by sending Jack her lines (I personally would sign up for a full version of her hilarious one-woman recitation of Arsenic and Old Lace), but she also shows a deeper emotionality, especially as we reach the darker moments of the show. My heart broke quite a few times for her throughout the performance. When their first date is cancelled, when Jack receives orders to go overseas, and during one particularly painful confrontation, Pedlow managed to show Louise's light dim just a little bit even as she smiled, making her pain even more acute. At the climax of the show, Epstein and Pedlow each give radically different, but equally heart-wrenching performances, and I dare anyone to stay dry-eyed in that moment.

Review: Fall in Love with DEAR JACK, DEAR LOUISE at Arena Stage
Jake Epstein (Jack Ludwig) and Amelia Pedlow (Louise Rabiner) in Ken Ludwig's Dear Jack, Dear Louise

Director Jackie Maxwell balances these two stories beautifully. With the help of Stage Manager Kurt Hall, Assistant Stage Manager Rachael Danielle Albert, Set Designer Beowulf Boritt, and Directing Assistant Shanara Gabrielle, Maxwell creates two distinct worlds on each side of the otherwise minimalist stage; Jack and Louise's rooms carefully reflect their personalities and their lives, and help immediately set the tone before they open their mouths. As each character recites their letter, we are able to watch the recipient react, as well as see the influences in their lives that follow them as they write. When both characters set out on the road - Louise for a national tour, Jack for training and Europe - the actors cross the stage and set up new, makeshift homes for their time away, and their movements around the stage reflect their new unmoored places in the world.

Costume Designer Linda Cho deserves particular praise for her beautiful period costumes. Jack's uniform was perfect and versatile as he went through the various stages of his service, while Louise's costumes were simply stunning; my companion and I couldn't help but gasp over a few of her clothing items, particularly her overcoat, brooch, and robe. Jason Lyons' lighting brought life to a mostly white set, and was particularly moving at the end of each act; the foreboding lighting was a great set-up for the bad news that closed the first act, and the lighting at the climax of the show helped convey the mood of the scene in a way that made it all the more powerful. Rounding out the mood is Lindsay Jones' excellent music and sound design, which not only subtly carries the show's emotionality, but also stays with you long after leaving; the choice to end with the song "I'll Be Seeing You" was so perfect, I had to go home and play it again.

Dear Jack, Dear Louise is a moving, funny, and heartbreaking show with a sweetly earnest cast and a formidable production team. And, as Ludwig hoped, it's a pleasurable reminder of the past and of our humanity. Arena Stage's production is the world premiere of Ludwig's heartfelt play, and I'm certain it is only the first of many successful runs.

Review: Fall in Love with DEAR JACK, DEAR LOUISE at Arena Stage
Amelia Pedlow (Louise Rabiner), Ken Ludwig (Playwright) and Jake Epstein (Jack Ludwig)

Ken Ludwig's Dear Jack, Dear Louise plays at the Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater through December 29. Information on tickets, accessibility, and post-show conversations can be found on the Arena website. Run time is approximately one hour and 45 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

Photos courtesy of C. Stanley Photography.



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