There’s a lovely new play at Arena Stage, but you’ll have to rush if you want to see it.
That’s because the play—Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise—will be off and running before the year ends, following its brief but successful world premiere here in Washington, DC.
Loosely based on a collection of letters written nearly 80 years ago, Dear Jack is a love story so funny and full of surprises that it manages to hold its audience rapt for an entire two acts.
Turning a correspondence into a play might sound difficult, but Ludwig is more than up to it. An accomplished playwright who has written more than 28 plays and musicals, he is the winner of multiple awards. (His first Broadway play, Lend Me a Tenor, is considered one of the finest comedies of the 20th century.)
Dear Jack, Dear Louise is more personal than any of his previous plays. Set against the backdrop of the Second World War, the play is a lively retelling of his parents’ courtship. But this is a wartime romance with a difference.
The outline of the play is simple. Boy meets girl during World War II.
No, they don’t meet at an air raid shelter or the USO or even on an assembly line. They are introduced, instead, by their fathers, who suggest that they ‘might like to get acquainted.’
That’s all very well and good, but Jack is an Army doctor, stationed at a base in Medford, Oregon, while Louise is an aspiring actress in the middle of New York City. Nevertheless, a correspondence ensues. Jack writes with stilted formality. (It takes a long time for him to accept using first names.) Louise’s letters are as effervescent as her showgirl-styled personality.
But wait, I wondered. How did the fathers meet? His parents live in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, in the middle of Amish Country, while hers are in Brooklyn, New York.
I called Ken Ludwig and asked. He laughed, since he and his brother had often speculated about that very question.
“We think they met on the boat,” he explained. “We know they were immigrants from Ukraine—which was part of Russia at the time—but they didn’t know each other in the old country. So it had to be while crossing the Atlantic.”
Of course, the trip then was longer than now. And steerage did not include entertainment. In all likelihood, there was little to do but talk about the future, and promise to stay in touch.
And stay in touch they did, even though, on arrival in the US, they went their separate ways. Jack’s father headed for Philadelphia, where he met his wife—one of 12 daughters—and settled in Coatesville. Jack worked his way through medical school, then was shipped off to Medford, where he treated soldiers wounded on the Pacific front.
Louise’s father settled in Brooklyn, where the family led a fairly cosmopolitan life. Louise, who wanted to be a showgirl, graduated from a high school for the arts—she auditioned by belting out an Ethel Merman favorite—and then moved to a boarding house for girls that was just a few steps from Broadway.
When the play begins, Louise is 19 and Jack is 26. He is painfully shy, and she is as bubbly as a budding bombshell can be. He’s never learned to dance. She is ready to teach him.
But will they ever dance? You’ll have to see the play to find out. That’s because the biggest surprise about Dear Jack, Dear Louise is its ability to surprise. Even though we know how it’s going to end—with these two marrying each other and subsequently producing the playwright himself—we have no idea how they’re going to get there, or what’s going to happen on the way.
Returning to Ludwig and our telephone conversation, I asked, “Why now? Why choose to tell this story today?”
“Ah,” he answered, “it’s because of what’s happening today. We’re surrounded by so many polarizing issues. “We read a lot about World War II, but we’ve lost the values that our parents had at the time. Their civility—their belief in doing what is good for society—has disappeared.”
Another loss that Ludwig mourns is that of letter-writing. “There’s something beautiful about a personal letter. There’s an intimacy, despite—or maybe because of—the formality. And I think we’ve lost that,” he lamented.
“I hope I’m wrong,” he added. “With e-mails, people write more often, but they write shorter notes. And there are privacy issues. We all know by now that e-mail is not private at all. We tend to think, ‘Oh, I’d better not say that in an e-mail, someone else might see it.’ So we don’t say those intimate things that used to be said in a letter.”
“Why Arena for a world premiere?” I asked.
“I love Arena,” Ludwig laughed, pointing out that this is his third international debut at the theater. (The last was Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, in 2015. Before that, there was Shakespeare in Hollywood, which won the Helen Hayes Award for best play in 2003.)
He credits much of the success of Dear Jack, Dear Louise to Arena’s production, and especially to its director, Jackie Maxwell, who is a regular at Arena.
“It’s been a marriage made in heaven,” he said, resulting in superb performances by Jake Epstein, a Canadian actor who played Spiderman on Broadway, and Amelia Pedlow, a Juilliard graduate who was seen recently at the Shakespeare Theater and the Folger.
“Living here, and choosing Arena for an opening, means that I can be much more involved in the rehearsals than I would be in New York or London,” he said. “I can come and go as I want.”
The two-time Olivier Award-winning playwright—who’s had six shows on Broadway and seven in the West End in London—chose Washington, DC as his home right after graduating from Harvard Law School. (Law, he explained, was his ‘day job’ for about 10 years, despite a string of commercial successes including Lend Me a Tenor, Sullivan and Gilbert and Crazy for You.)
Like many playwrights, Ludwig owes a lot to the Bard. Our phone call ended with a story about teaching Shakespeare to his then six-year-old daughter.
“She was in first grade, and trying to understand a passage from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I helped her to memorize it, so that she would own it for the rest of her life.”
The result was How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare, which won the Falstaff Award for best book in its category in 2013. (“It’s really ‘How to teach yourself to read Shakespeare,’ he said, but added that “people wouldn’t buy it if they knew that.”)
With that, Ludwig recited the entire passage, spoken by Oberon at the beginning of Act 2. Here are the first few lines:
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows…
Dear Jack, Dear Louise doesn’t pretend to be in that category. But it is redolent of a gentler time, and a reminder that letter-writing, like political discourse, was once directed at making the world a better place.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise plays through December 29, 2019, at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.