Ken Ludwig is best known for comedies and musicals, such as “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Crazy for You,” but his latest, 2019's “Dear Jack, Dear Louise,” is something quite different.
The 105-minute play is a World War II romance. And not just any romance, “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” is the story of the courtship of Ludwig's parents, Captain Jacob S. Ludwig and Louise Rabiner, and it is told entirely in letters.
While epistolary plays are nothing new — A.R. Gurney's “Love Letters” springs to mind—there is a catch. Ludwig's parents exchanged hundreds of letters between 1941 and the end of the war, but he never saw a single one of them. According to a Q&A session in the program, his mother destroyed all the letters before she died, and no one knows why. Ludwig only found out about them through family lore.
Of course, this left Ludwig free to make it all up based on the parents he knew. The result is a charming, often funny account of two very different people who slowly but surely find common ground and form a friendship that blossoms into love despite thwarted plans to actually meet, and other setbacks.
Jacob, nicknamed “Jack” and drafted after college and medical school, is a military doctor stationed in Medford, Oregon. Played to a “t” by Casey Hoekstra, he's reserved, rather shy and precise. Sarah Price's Louise is an opinionated, outspoken, outgoing would-be showgirl who has moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan to pursue a career and takes dance and acting lessons.
Their correspondence starts because their parents—their fathers are both tailors and know each other—think they would be a good match and provide addresses and encouragement. Jack writes the initial letter, a brief and fairly formal missive. As they become further acquainted, the salutations become less stuffy; naturally, Louise is the one who suggests using first names.
The focus in the first act is on Louise's career, as she describes going to auditions and the theater scene in New York City, a great opportunity for the playwright to name-drop celebrities forgotten—or never known—by much of the audience. She even includes a scene from the play “Arsenic and Old Lace.” She also reports on her visit to his family in Coatesville, PA, (tailors, Coatesville, get it?) where she meets and is assessed by his mother's eleven sisters, much to his consternation.
In the second act, Jack is sent overseas to Europe and reports on the horrors of war, as Louise fills him in on her experiences working at the Stage Door Canteen. The tension builds when he's on the front lines, but we know everything is going to be okay (otherwise Ludwig wouldn't exist), and that hopefulness for the future shows in a finale that seems to emulate a certain famous photograph.
Some plays comprised of letters are staged with the actors at podiums reading from scripts. This is definitely not one of them. Director Jessica Fisch, whose grandparents also corresponded during World War II and whose 97-year-old grandmother shared those letters with her, brings the story to life in a unique way.
Yeaji Kim's scenic design features distinct areas for Jack and Louise—an office with an oak desk for him, a bedroom with a vanity and changing screen for her—in front of an opaque wall filled with letters—but the actors often cross into each other's areas and complete each other's sentences (from different letters), even though they never actually look at each other or interact. It's a delicate balance that works beautifully thanks to Fisch and to the chemistry between Hoekstra and Price, both of whom are spot on and complement each other perfectly.
Credit also goes to Izumi Inaba's costume design highlighted by colorful dresses for Louise, Jackie Fox's evocative lighting and especially Eric Backus's sound design, which makes it feel like the bombs are bursting right nearby.
In all honesty, I was a little skeptical about “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” because the story and happy ending are so generic, but they're also very specific and satisfying in a way we need right now. That's another way of saying I enjoyed the show more than I expected.