The Letters is more than just Marx on a page | Performing Arts Sidebar | Chicago Reader

The Letters is more than just Marx on a page 

Writers' Theatre production confronts life under Stalin

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A Soviet despot's shit rolling downhill

A Soviet despot's shit rolling downhill

Michael Brosilow

It's 1931, and Joseph Stalin wields more power over Russia than any czar ever did. Not content to lead his comrades into the new economic order, he means to reengineer their psyches as well. Private life has been abolished as a relic of pre-Bolshevik decadence. The new human is to be, wholly and completely, a component of the state.

Stalin's despotic vision reaches down into the quiet confines of the government publishing house depicted in John Lowell's sharp 2009 play. Anna is an editor preparing a famous Russian composer's letters for publication—which basically means vacuuming out references to his exuberantly "pornographic" sex life. She's doing her job extremely well. But when she's called into the director's office, she finds that her own secrets are subject to equally intense scrutiny. After all, there's no such thing as a private life.

Kate Fry and Mark Montgomery were delightful last year, exploring the unequal but loving relationship between a Victorian doctor and his unfulfilled wife, in Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room. This time around love isn't a factor, and the inequality is a matter of life or death. In Kimberly Senior's tense mousetrap of a production, Fry's Anna initially maintains the politic silence of someone who knows that anything she says will definitely be held against her. Still, as the almost counterrevolutionary silk blouse in which costume designer Rachel Anne Healy has dressed her suggests, she's got plenty going on inside. Montgomery, meanwhile, is perfect down to his ugly prole haircut as the director, a jittery, angry, defensive apparatchik thug who speaks sneeringly of the "clever people" under his authority.

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