For as long as the two have existed, theater and romance have gone hand in hand. Countless plays and musicals have tackled themes of love in what seems like every way imaginable. At times, it may feel as if every love story that theater can offer has already been told.
However, “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” continued this tradition in a way that was inventive, funny and heartwarming. Performed last week in the Helms Theatre as part of the Virginia Theatre Festival, the play follows the romance between Jack Ludwig, a World War II military doctor, and Louise Rabiner, an aspiring actress.
Jack and Louise’s romance is similar to any other on-stage romance, but there’s one difference — for most of the play, the two never speak in person. Because Jack is stationed across the world from Louise’s native New York, almost all of their communication happens through letters.
To represent this, both Jack, played by Jordan Sobel, and Louise, played by Suzannah Hershkowitz, occupy opposite sides of the stage.
Although it is understood that their conversations are written, the two read their conversations aloud so that it resembles dialogue. Some letters were read in the form of monologues — others are shown as quick, real-time volleys between the two. This choice both keeps the audience engaged and allows them to feel the chemistry between the two characters develop.
Though they share a stage, neither of the two look at the other for most of the show. This helps the audience maintain that they’re physically separated without sacrificing the intimacy of the relationship.
One of the most interesting staging elements of the show was the stage’s alleyway configuration. Instead of a traditional proscenium, “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” positions the action on a strip in the middle of the room, with rows of audience members facing the middle of the stage on either side.
The Helms Theatre — located on Grounds in the Drama Education Building — holds between 150 and 200 people. Combined with the alleyway setup, the coziness of the black box theater gave the show an element of closeness that allowed audiences to be swept away by the story.
“It's sort of an epic story told across a mass in terms of where these people are, but we're doing it in this really intimate and really unique spatial configuration,” Sobel said. “I think it adds a level of intimacy and a level of theatricality to the piece. I think that's a lot of fun, and a very idiosyncratic aspect of the show, which is really exciting.”
Jack and Louise’s exchanges throughout the play are genuine, heartwarming and often very funny. After not hearing from Jack for several weeks, Louise passive aggressively tries to get his attention. In another scene, Jack writes letters to his overbearing relatives before they meet Louise. Scenes like these kept the audiences smiling throughout the show.
Because it takes place during World War II, “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” also explores the atrocities of war. Jack frequently describes the devastating injuries he has to treat and the grueling training he and the rest of the men must go through.
Later, the audience watches him escape an air raid as sounds of bombs thunder through the theater. Scenes like these completely immerse viewers in the world of the play and create an intense tension that is contrasted by the more heartfelt parts of the play.
Since the show takes place in the 20th century, one might worry that it isn’t relevant to modern audiences. However, the love story at the heart of the play is one that will resonate with audiences of all kinds.
“The play is really all about hope and longing, and what it means to reach out for another human being in a time of uncertainty,” Sobel said. “It’s about how having a human connection can be the strongest beacon for hope and life.”
“Dear Jack, Dear Louise” is one of three shows presented this year by the Virginia Theatre Festival, or VTF. Formerly called the Heritage Theatre Festival, VTF has brought professional theater to Charlottesville each summer since 1974.
Earlier this summer, the Festival put on a dazzling production of Cabaret. From August 3 to August 6, the festival presented its final show, “An Evening with Yolanda Rabun.”
Lydia Newman, the social media specialist for VTF, sees the festival as an opportunity to showcase both great theater and the incredible theatrical spaces the University has to offer.
“We have a lot of great assets in the theater department here, but I don't think a lot of people know that,” Newman said. “Post-COVID, I think at first it was hard to get audiences back here — but this summer, it’s been really cool to see people realize that this is a professional theater.”
When one feels isolated, art is one of the most powerful tools for fostering connection. “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” achieved this seamlessly — by showing that love knows no distance, and that connection can be found anywhere.