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A CurtainUp Review
The Last Letter

by Les Gutman

Hope almost never goes together with reason.
Nowhere is there more hope than in the ghetto.

---Anna Semyonovna

Kathleen Chalfant
Kathleen Chalfant (Photo: Jerry Goodstein)

Anna Semyonovna (Kathleen Chalfant) is filled with regrets. Having been uprooted from her home and life as a respected eye doctor, and marched to the ghetto of her small city in the Ukraine, she faces near-certain extermination at the hands of the Nazis. But it is not her fate that is at the center of her thoughts: it is not what she will lose, but rather what she never had that consumes her mind. In particular, she realizes that her son, who is safely away from her, will never truly know her, and that her secular life has deprived her of her Jewishness.

All of this is related in a letter -- her last, as the title suggests -- addressed to that son. It is lifted, verbatim, we are told in helpful dramaturgical notes included in the Playbill, from the eighteenth chapter of Vasily Grossman's masterwork novel, Life and Fate. Through the epistolatory device, Grossman manages to tell both a large story -- the increasingly horrific awareness of the impending doom which was the Nazi Holocaust, and the equally terrifying revelation of the complacency (or worse) of many of those non-Jews who seemed to have been friends -- and an intensely personal and, it would seem, largely autobiographical, one.

One might shudder at the prospect of a sixty-five minute dramatic enterprise that consists entirely of the recitation of a single letter were it not for Kathleen Chalfant. (For the record, the letter is "performed," not read.) Ms. Chalfant, as is her customary procedure, manages to infuse the exercise with enough superb acting that we hardly notice. It is another piece of evidence that she is one of those rare actors who could hold our attention while reading the telephone book.

This is not to say that the Grossman's letter is without interest. Though it catalogs Nazi atrocities of which the audience is surely aware (the rounding up of the local Jewish population, the confiscation of property, the resulting mass executions), the manner in which The Last Letter personalizes it renders it all the more striking. Frederick Wiseman, best known for his documentaries (his film La Dernière Lettre, based on the same chapter, was an official selection of the 2002 Cannes Film Festival), who here serves as both adaptor and director, presents us with a clear impression. But if Grossman's novel was a "masterwork," Mr. Wiseman's play is something less.

Ms. Chalfant appears before us on a virtually bare stage (Douglas Stein's set design consists simply of supplying enclosing gray walls), in a plain black dress, to which the obligatory Star of David has been affixed (Miranda Hoffman's costume design chores likewise not causing her to break a sweat). Both of these choices are perfectly apt.

Which brings us to Donald Holder's lighting design. Mr. Holder has thrilled us with a long string of lighting designs both on and off Broadway. Here, one might have hoped that he would have exercised restraint consistent with the work of the show's other designers. He did not. His concept relies heavily on casting enormous shadows (the metaphor too obvious to require expression). They are intrusive, and repeatedly draw focus from Ms. Chalfant. I suppose one must conclude that if one seeks subtlety in lighting design, Holder is not your man.

Fans of Kathleen Chalfant (a group of which I consider myself a member) will want to see this production for her performance. Otherwise, an evening at home reading Chapter 18 may well be a preferable experience. And it wouldn't hurt to give a look at the rest of the book either.

The Last Letter
Based on the novel Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert Chandler
Adapted and Directed by Frederick Wiseman
with Kathleen Chalfant
Set Design: Douglas Stein
Lighting Design: Donald Holder
Costume Design: Miranda Hoffman
Running time: 1 hour, 5 minutes with no intermission
A production of Theatre For A New Audience
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street (Hudson/Bleecker)
Telephone: (212) 239-6200
TUES - SAT @8, SAT @2, SUN @3 and 7 (no performances 12/20 @2, 12/23 @8pm, 12/24, 12/25, 12/31, added performances 12/17 @2, 12/22 @8, 1/2 @2; $60
Opening December 18, 2003, closing January 11, 2004
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 12/17/03 performance

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