Standing tall in v formation, the soldier storytellers of Letters Home introduce themselves with a terse, in-medias-res quote from their respective monologue. The audience’s attention darts around the black box as the company of GIs offer flashes of the incredible lives detailed in their letters. It is a clever way to introduce the breadth of emotions contained within this show: some sound funny, some sound serious, and some sound absolutely harrowing. Letters Home is all of the above. While the production is not without some missed opportunities, Letters Home is a comprehensive look into the triumphs, costs, and humanity behind armed conflict.
The script consists of a collection of monologues from a variety of people impacted by the war in Iraq. While the overwhelming majority of these are sourced from actual letters sent from the front lines of the middle east, the stories also include vignettes of the lives of those with loved ones overseas. Letters Home is not a political show; the performance eschews delving into the mire of the politics surrounding Iraq and opts instead to portray the human condition during armed conflict. The production, then, should only be judged as to how well this picture is painted.
Griffin Theatre Co. capitalizes on the emotional depth of its subject matter by focusing on the dynamics of each of the letters. Each of the cast members deftly evade the trap of having letters become one dimensional by expressing secondary, conflicting emotions. You can feel utter despair behind the hope of a father as he details out his imminent return to his family; you can see the mania in the eyes of the marine as he coldly recalls a brutal combat engagement. The focus on the more nuanced aspects of each of these letters serve to create highly engaging performances. Not all stories have the same impact, however. When the structure of the show offers immediate juxtaposition between narratives, it can become clear which ones the company prioritized over others. The acting for the vast majority of these monologues is very strong, which unfortunately serves to highlight when it is not. This is thankfully saved by the overall order of the stories; variety of tones and brevity of the letters keeps the production highly engaging and prevents burnout. The emotional impact is felt throughout the entirety of the show.
What really could benefit the production, however, is a more involved audio design. The staging is minimalist, but even the slightest backing soundscapes (for some) could make the monologues more memorable. When the projected introduction and costume of each story is required to be the same, sounds for some of the stories would be a great way to differentiate the monologues and serve to create immersion for the audience. The production already utilizes photography to great effect - adding audio would have made the effect that much greater.
Letters Home is recommended for its strong and nuanced acting. The ensemble’s dynamic representation of the human impact of armed conflict is something to be seen, and the play is sure to elicit and strong emotional response from most audiences.
Review by Ryan Moore
Letters Home continues at The Den Theater through May 3. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.