A man and a woman face each other in a tiny government office somewhere in Soviet Russia. The man, identified only as the Director, is the head of a nameless bureaucracy. The woman, named Anna, is his subordinate.
“The Letters” doesn’t tell the audience much more than that in the first minutes of the Aurora Theatre Company production that opened last week as the first fully staged production in Harry’s UpStage, the company’s compact, 49-seat performance space.
The cryptic atmosphere, quickly established in director Mark Jackson’s taut 75-minute production, is part of the pleasure of John W. Lowell’s psychological thriller. The playwright unspools this Orwellian tale of government surveillance, censorship and repression in measured increments, drawing the viewer in step by scary step.
Anna, an editor who works in a downstairs office, isn’t sure why she’s been called upstairs for this “interview.” As the Director begins to question her, nothing is clear. Is he threatening her? Trying to extract a confession?
At times, his body language and insinuating tone suggest sexual harassment; as the questions turn from vague to personal, we learn that Anna is a widow who lives alone.
She’s clearly wary of the hidden agenda, which eventually comes to light. A cache of letters, revealing that Russia’s top composer (read: Tchaikovsky) is homosexual — a “monster,” in the Director’s view — has gone missing under her watch.
A play this short and compact challenges the actors to lend it depth and dimension. The excellent Beth Wilmurt invests the role of Anna with palpable emotional weight, shading the character with a haunted look, a prim demeanor, and a steely core. Her delivery of the text is riveting.
If Michael Ray Wisely’s Director doesn’t seem quite as fully developed, he exudes an insinuating blend of congeniality and menace throughout.
Jackson’s crisp direction is aided by Maya Linke’s claustrophobic set, which features framed pictures of Stalin and Lenin gazing down on the actors. Venetian blinds cast noir-ish shadows, and a ringing telephone punctuates the action at key moments. Lighting by Joe D’Amilio and costumes by Ashley Rogers help define the 1930s atmosphere.
Still, with lines like “Guiltless people have nothing to hide from a little scrutiny,” “The Letters” resonates eerily in the present. Take away its Russian backdrop, and Lowell’s message about government intrusion sounds just as threatening in our own time.
Presented by Aurora Theatre Company
Where: Harry’s UpStage, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes June 1
Tickets: $28 to $32