“Dear Jack, Dear Louise” at Northlight Theatre

While one can scroll through countless photos of potential romantic partners online, the concept of falling in love with someone you haven’t seen before feels like something out of reality TV. Rewind to 1942, and the story of pen-pals-turned-lovers in “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” feels incredibly sweet and whimsical—but it’s true. Now playing at the North Light Theatre, this nostalgic drama by Olivier Prize-winning playwright Ken Ludwig is based on the real-life romance of his parents, who wrote to each other for three years during World War II before meeting in person. This poignant, personal theatrical piece celebrates human connection amid difficult times.

Directed by Jessica Fish, the cast includes Casey Hoekstra as Jack Ludwig and Sarah Price as Louise Rabiner. Shy and straitjacket, Jack, from a small Pennsylvania town, is drafted into the US Army after medical school and stationed in Oregon as a military doctor. An extroverted extrovert who grew up in Brooklyn, Louise lives in a boarding house in Manhattan and auditions for theater productions every chance she gets, hoping to make it to Broadway.

After being alerted by his parents, who know Louise’s parents, to reconcile the pair, Jack conducts a temporary correspondence, and the unexpected husband blows it up. The play’s dialogue consists entirely of letters, which are recreations of Ludwig (his mother destroyed the actual letters before her death). The fast-paced, dynamic text puts Jack and Louise in conversation with each other, rather than reciting long passages in turns. Although they never make eye contact or touch during a long-distance relationship, the actors share a clear chemistry.

The play offers a plentiful reminder of how much the nature of communication has changed in just a few generations. Even during the worst isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, social media and video calls have allowed us to see our loved ones’ faces and hear their voices. However, Jack and Louise don’t see pictures of each other until they’ve been writing for months. When he finally saw her picture, Jack’s silent reaction to Louise’s beauty was touching. They move just as equally the moment they hear each other’s voices for the first time on a rare phone call. Their reliance on snail mail causes several interesting occasions when one writer’s response is delayed for an unknown reason, and the other is left to assume the worst.

Ludwig is best known for his comedies, such as “Lend Me a Tenor”, and his sense of humor is also shown here. Louise revives Jack with stories of her showbiz adventures and keeps him informed of their families’ constant attempts to bring them together. When she accepts an invitation to visit Jack’s parents and meets all of his 11 meddling aunts–without him, much to his consternation–she gets some comical scratches.

The backdrop of World War II creates an increased sense of danger as the play continues. While in Oregon, Jack talks to Louise about the sympathy he feels for wounded soldiers who are transported to his hospital from the Pacific Front. Later, he was sent abroad to France, where D-Day’s successes and liberation of French villages were tempered by the devastating losses of an Allied invasion and news arising from the Holocaust. Jack and Louise are both Jews, so his horror of what he learned from German POWs is especially striking.

Of course, the audience knows from the start that Jack survives the war and gets the girl; Ludwig is living proof. As a plot device, a war that keeps Jack and Louise separate for three years builds tension toward a purgatory ending. One more source of conflict threatens their budding romance: Jack does something painful and hides it from Louise, whom he later discovers through a mutual friend. Oddly enough, this controversy was folded with relative ease. That may have been exactly what happened in real life (again, the couple’s actual characters didn’t survive), but it seems like an episode worth exploring more from a dramatic point of view.

The lasting impression of “Dear Jack, dear Louise” is the resilience of these two young men who form a beautiful bond despite the constant fear and uncertainty of the war they live in. Hoekstra and Price play these roles with charm and charisma, drawing the audience into this funny and intimate romance, which the son of the spouses so tenderly recreated on the stage.

Review: “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” (3 stars)

When: Until August 7

Where: North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. , Skokie

Show duration: 1 hour and 45 minutes

Tickets: $30 – $89 at northlight.org or 847-673-6300

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