Ken Ludwig has written many plays over the course of his long, successful career, including “Lend Me a Tenor,” “Crazy for You,” “Moon Over Buffalo” and “Baskerville.” But he may have come up with his best story yet, via his own family lore.
“Dear Jack, Dear Louise” — which was first produced in 2019 and is currently being presented by the George Street Playhouse at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center — tells the tale of Ludwig’s parents’ long-distance courtship during World War II. It’s a sweet, sometimes funny and very touching story, intensified by the backdrop of wartime danger. Actors Amelia Pedlow, as Louise, and Bill Army, as Jack — directed by George Street Playhouse artistic director David Saint — bring them to life vividly, making for a deeply absorbing play.
Jack was an army doctor; Louise, an aspiring actress and dancer. They were introduced by their parents when Jack was stationed on an army base in Oregon and Louise was living in New York, and stayed in touch for several years via mail (plus an occasional phone call or telegram) before actually meeting.
The play consists mainly of them reading from their letters (imagined by Ken Ludwig; the actual letters no long exist). They write so frequently that what they say to each other takes on the quality of dialogue, though the characters remain separated by thousands of miles throughout most of the play.
The relationship develops as any other relationship would. You hear their tone get more earnest as their affection deepens. There are awkward moments: When one doesn’t answer a letter immediately, the other suspects he or she may have done something wrong. Jealousy rears its ugly head.
I found myself frequently watching one character as the other was talking; I felt like I could see them processing the information, and formulating a response.
Louise and Jack are opposites in some ways. Louise has an outgoing, lively personality. Jack is somewhat formal and reserved. She loves to dance; he doesn’t.
But she draws him out of his shell. They find common interests, and things to laugh about. He tells her about his life, operating on a never-ending stream of young soldiers who have, in many cases, been gravely wounded. And she shares some of her adventures in the theater world.
“It’s meant to be avant-garde,” she says of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera,” in which she landed a role. “That just means the stage was dark and we all spoke with Hungarian accents.”
He keeps trying to get his commanding officer to grant him a leave, so he can visit her, but something always gets in the way. Meanwhile, she lands a part in a touring production of the popular “Hellzapoppin” revue.
She has an opportunity to meet his family, and does. Her account of spending some time with his parents, sister and extended family is a hilarious mini-play in and of itself. You can sense her skill and joy at acting as she “becomes” these different relatives while telling Jack what happened. Much to Jack’s relief, the visit goes well — except for one disastrous incident that she shrugs off with a laugh.
Act 1 almost seems a little too cute at times. But Act II brings things down to earth, as Jack’s life grows increasingly perilous, and some problems develop in the relationship.
It’s never in doubt that things will work out for Jack and Louise — these are Ken Ludwig’s parents, after all — but Saint still does a good job of ramping up the intensity as the play reaches a kind of nightmarish crescendo in the second act.
Saint writes in the play’s program that Jack and Louise’s “forced separation echoes so resonantly in our own collective experience for the past break of almost two years” (this is George Street’s first in-person production since March 2020). I’m honestly not sure I would have made that link on my own. But perhaps that is part of what made this play affect me so deeply.
In any event, I highly recommend “Dear Jack, Dear Louse,” and am happy to report that Saint also said — in his pre-show, opening night introduction, Oct. 29 — that a Broadway production is currently being planned.
The George Street Playhouse will present “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through Nov. 21. Visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.
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