La Derniere Lettre (The Last Letter) | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

La Derniere Lettre (The Last Letter) 

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Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman is known for his cinema-verite documentaries of institutional life: Titicut Follies, High School, Hospital. With this beautifully staged, lit, and acted production--a one-woman performance starring French actress Catherine Samie--he also reveals himself as a first-rate theatrical artist. Wiseman's script--adapted from Russian journalist Vassili Grossman's once-suppressed novel Life and Fate--is a monologue in the form of a farewell letter written by a mother to her son. The woman, a Jewish doctor living in a Ukrainian town in 1941, faces certain, imminent death. Standing alone on a bare, sparely lit stage, dressed in black with a yellow star on her left breast, and framed only by subtly shifting shadows, the 69-year-old Samie brings to this modern material a mixture of technique and emotion possessed only by the very finest classical actors. As she describes her ever-changing feelings--fear, anger, sorrow, resignation--every gesture is perfectly shaped, every pause precisely timed, every word placed on the most expressive pitch in her enormous vocal range. La Derniere Lettre, performed in French with projected English translation, is firmly rooted in the specifics of the Holocaust, which Grossman observed as a Soviet journalist: it's a riveting record of how the German occupation of Ukraine was viewed by various social groups and a poignant portrait of how the condemned go about living their lives. But it also resonates on a nearly universal level as an exploration of maternal love--a woman's last-ditch, liberating confession of the childish terrors and human weaknesses masked by a lifelong display of parental strength. Produced by the fabled Comedie-Francaise in the intimate upstairs studio of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, which is presenting the touring show's local engagement with Chicago's Alliance Francaise, La Derniere Lettre is nothing short of stunning. Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand, 312-595-5600 or TTY 312-595-5699. June 22 and 23: Friday-Saturday, 7:30 PM. $35.

--Albert Williams

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Laurencine Lot.

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