An office in 1930’s Soviet Union is the setting for John W. Lowell’s The Letters, a play based on the real life Soviet efforts to edit the sexually frank letters of composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, on stage now at MetroStage in Alexandria, VA.
Directed by John Vreeke, and starring Michael Russotto and Susan Lynskey, the play is an intense psychological drama that seems perfect for the intimate MetroStage setting and even more apropos for being in D.C.
“We live in our nation’s capital. In fact, it’s the seat of global power,” Russotto says. “As our government invades our lives a little bit more every day, as privacy and personal liberties disappear, as we’re told what to think and how to feel by an ever more homogenous media, the play provides a window into what happens with official over-reach.”
Russotto says he was drawn to the play because of its dangerous atmosphere.
“It’s sort of a psychological thriller with lots of twists and turns,” he says. “Then, of course, there is the acting challenge of telling the story in a clear, concise way that holds the audiences’ interest, and also the challenge of keeping the characters complex and unpredictable, when at first glance they might seem a bit stereotypical.”
For Lynskey, coming on board was simply a matter of her trust in artistic director Carolyn Griffin.
“She chooses the most extraordinary ‘gems of plays.’ She introduced me to one of my favorite plays of all time in 2006 entitled Girl in the Goldfish Bowl. And then she introduced me to the luminous role of Myra in a play entitled Ghost-writer”, which earned her a Helen Hayes nomination, “which spoke to my personal understanding and love for language and punctuation,” she says. “So, when she called me about this play, I was so incredibly excited to get the chance to work on it.”
Russotto admits he didn’t know much about the Russian/Soviet History other than the basic facts of the Revolution in 1917, so he buckled down on the history by reading articles about life in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Lynskey focused her research more on Tchaikovsky.
“I have been blessed (or cursed) with an inquisitive nature and I am interested in times in which I did not live myself,” Lynskey says. “I have a particular penchant for the ’20s and ’30s—both in the United States and globally, so I did know a bit about the given circumstances, but was eager to learn more. I have always been curious about different ideologies and how they may function in practice for a greater good. I was incredibly grateful this play gave me the opportunity to research more deeply into the life of Tchaikovsky himself.”
Russotto plays the Director, a soviet bureaucrat with a military background. He’s in charge of a large ministry tasked with creating a kind of pure cultural history for the Soviet people.
“He’s a rather street smart man, but he has a bit of an inferiority complex,” he says. “He’s a recognizable type-A personality. To prepare, I have been using certain models from my own life.”
Lynskey describes Anna as an editor and “person of words.”
“She is charged with her most difficult assignment to date. Redacting words from the love letters of Russia’s greatest composer, Tchaikovsky,” she says. “Her husband was a musician, a cellist. She clearly has a love of music, art, and beauty but now lives in a world where these serve the state and the State alone. She has also been charged to eliminate from history a man’s life and love; The State does not want the fact that Tchaikovsky loved another man to remain in the legacy narrative. Anna is conflicted—she does not believe in what she has been charged to do but she must relegate herself to a functionary in order to survive.”
The two DC acting vets have worked together numerous times before. Among them, Russotto played the mysterious visitor Mr. Lawrence and Lynskey was 10 year old Iris in Girl in the Goldfish Bowl.
“Michael is one of the best. I love being in the rehearsal room with him,” Lynskey says. “I have had the pleasure of working with him on many projects at the Kennedy Center, Olney Theater Center, and other theaters around DC. He always brings a true sense of investigation and craft to his work.”
Not surprisingly, Russotto has a similar take on their acting relationship.
“I love working with Susan, of course. I think we trust each other implicitly on stage, and that lets us take risks in rehearsal that lead to some great discoveries about the play and the characters,” he says. “The chemistry is fabulous.”
Both also have much praise for director Vreeke’s skill at making this play come to life.
“John is one of those extraordinary directors who is able to craft simultaneously the ‘outside’; the design framework that informs the world of play, and the ‘inside’; the moment to moment work with the actors,” Lynskey says. “He has laser sharp insight, pays attention to the smallest detail and fosters true collaboration with actors. I also think his ear for music is one of the sharpest, loving, and most evolved I’ve ever encountered. He is so gifted, full of humor, with unparalleled passion for the work, and care for the people doing it.”
Russotto has been directed by Vreeke nearly a dozen times, and the actor believes he is one of the few people who know how to pronounce the director’s name correctly.
“I’d say he’s a real actor’s director. He creates a safe work environment in which anything becomes possible—actors are free to explore, to fail, to succeed. He’s always incredibly prepared. He always has a vision, and he lets his actors and designers contribute to it. He’s wonderfully flexible and open.”
A provocative play like The Letters always inspires some deep thought and debate, and Russotto believes the timing is perfect for the message it delivers.
“They’ll hopefully see parallels with what is happening in the United States today,” Russotto says. “I imagine people will feel intrigued by the story and take with them the same creepy satisfaction they might feel at the end of a good mystery story.”