by Paula Kaplan-Reiss
The sun starts to set on a glorious late spring evening over Shakespeare & Company’s outdoor Roman Garden Theatre. As the birds chirp and fly overhead and 40’s music is piped in, we are in a perfect setting for a love story: Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise. Famed Tony winning playwright, Ludwig, known for ‘Lend Me a Tenor’ and ‘Crazy for You,’ tells the story of his parents’ courtship over letters during WWII. His father, Jack, a U.S. Army Captain stationed in Eugene, Oregon is encouraged to write Louise Rabiner, an aspiring actress living in a boarding house in New York City. We are the privileged witnesses of budding love, frustration of a long-distance romance, and the horrors of war, all conveyed through letters sent between 1942 and 1945.
We cannot help but feel nostalgic for a time when letters were sent and waited for as the sole means of communication. Jack (David Gow) and Louise (Zoya Martin) convey every ounce of their feelings and relationship developing, without ever talking directly to each other, and standing on opposite sides of the simply decorated stage. Jack is shy and nervous, at first, while Louise is bubbly, vivacious and outgoing, easily able to say what she thinks and feels. Her engaging personality pulls for Jack to share more of himself, his passion for medicine, his admiration for Winston Churchill, his issues with his overbearing family.
Gow and Martin are masterful at bringing the audience into their evolving relationship. We completely understand how they fall in love. We fall in love too. Ludwig’s humor comes through as Jack and Louise tease each other through text. With simple props such as a stethoscope, a helmet and a footlocker, Gow, as Jack, demonstrates a myriad of emotions, sometimes listening and reacting to the letters he receives from Louise, yet saying little. But we know exactly what he is feeling. When he reads from one of Churchill’s books, a pivotal moment, we hear his dedication to honesty, courage and passion, how he makes sense of his role in the war, and his desire for Louise to follow her dreams.
At the same time, Martin’s effervescence as Louise is conveyed through her excitement on auditions, her impressions of famous movie stars, and her outrageous meetings with Jack’s family, while waiting to meet Jack, who is never able to get leave as the war intensifies. She knows Jack is a man worth waiting for, and why she is compelled to continue her faithful correspondence over three years. She recognizes the loneliness of war, and the role she plays in alleviating the suffering of many as she engenders joy, laughter and entertainment, especially in Jack.
Ludwig’s tight script and Ariel Bock’s excellent direction leave us hanging on every word of every letter, hoping that Jack and Louise will make it, even though we know that they must.
With Jack’s side of the stage in army green and Louise’s side in pink florals with a dressing table, and a simple wooden structure for mail, center stage, set designer Patrick Brennan provides everything necessary to get the sense of how far apart Jack and Louise are, yet how the postal service brings them together.
While Jack remains in military wear throughout the play, costume designer, Govane Lohbauer gives Louise lovely 40s dresses to wear and change into throughout the performance. Jack’s job as an army lieutenant and medic never changes. Louise goes on constant auditions and loves presenting herself and being seen as beautiful.
As the night darkens over the stage, the war becomes scarier, the relationship gets threatened, the casualties increase, and the audience becomes more invested in Jack’s and Louise’s future. Amy Altadonna, sound designer, provides sirens, radio broadcasts, and announcements over speakers which sound incredibly authentic in an outdoor setting.
For those in the audience who have parents or grandparents who went through WWII, we can readily identify with a couple meeting during this tumultuous time. In fact, we are subject to the horrors of war every day when we engage with our televisions and social media. Today, we rarely write or receive letters. We are heartened when we hear Jack wearily write after D-Day, “We are trying to prevent harm, not inflict it.”
Ludwig and the glorious cast of Dear Jack, Dear Louise, performing in the peaceful magnificent Berkshires provide us with an evening where writing and love win, and wars do end. Don’t miss it.
Dear Jack, Dear Louise by Ken Ludwig, directed by Ariel Bock, runs from May 26-July 30, 2023 at the outdoor Roman Garden Theatre on the Shakespeare & Company campus at 70 Kemble Street in Lenox, MA. CAST: David Gow as Jack Ludwig and Zoya Martin as Louise Rabiner. Set design by Patrick Brennan; sound design by Amy Altadonna, costume design by Govane Lohbauer, stage manager Amelia Heastings, assistant stage manager Lacey Jo Sloat.
This production has been generously sponsored by the Friedman Family, in honor of Roberta Friedman. Tickets range from $22 to $62 – tickets to previews are $10 less – and are on sale now at shakespeare.org, or by calling the Box Office at (413) 637-3353. Run time approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes including one intermission.