It’s hard, at a time when the news from Ukraine continues to dominate the headlines, to hear of war and not immediately think of Kyiv, Mariupol and other scenes of conflict in Eastern Europe.
The bravery and defiance of Ukrainians against the Russian invasion has already become the stuff of legends. This past weekend, the New York Times reported on Lt. Tetiana Chornovol, the commander of roughly a dozen Ukrainians who are firing tripod-mounted missiles that they transport using their personal cars. Chornovol referred to her red Chevy Volt electric hatchback as an “ecologically clean killing machine.”
Against this backdrop of international strife, Virginia Rep is staging “Dear Jack, Dear Louise,” a play about an unlikely romance set during World War II. While Virginia Rep chose this play back when Russia’s latest press into Ukraine was just a glint in Vladimir Putin’s eye, the battle over Ukraine repeatedly comes to mind while watching this wartime romantic comedy.
Penned by Ken Ludwig, a playwright best known for farces like “Lend Me a Tenor,” “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” is based on the courtship of Ludwig’s own parents. Set up by their fathers from afar – and without having met – Jack and Louise (Neal Gallini-Burdick and Lydia Hundley) begin a correspondence by mail in the hopes of hitting it off.
Jack, shy and earnest, is a doctor at a military hospital in Oregon at the start of the show. Louise, fiery and headstrong, is an aspiring actress living in a boardinghouse in Manhattan. The two embark on a letter writing campaign as their plans to meet each other in person are repeatedly dashed by the war.
Matters are further complicated when Jack is sent to the European front and Louise is cast in a traveling Broadway show. When either gets too busy, there are long, anxiety-inducing pauses in their correspondence: an old-fashioned equivalent of “being left on read.”
Coming across as something like a nostalgic “You’ve Got Mail” – but with actual, physical mail – Ludwig’s script manages to not make the back and forth seem tiring. The jokes are often clever, if sometimes a little cutesy, but the second act reaches for some dramatics that aren’t entirely earned.
Under Debra Clinton’s direction, Gallini-Burdick and Hundley do well with Ludwig’s lighthearted banter. Gallini-Burdick is charming in his sincere role. Even when his character takes a romantic misstep, there’s a winning wholesomeness to Gallini-Burdick’s performance.
Hundley gets more of a comedic part to bite into; some of her big scenes, like her recollections of meeting Jack’s family while Jack is thousands of miles away, are pretty funny. Still, there’s the occasional comedic and dramatic beat in the show that doesn’t quite land.
Dasia Gregg’s set design of floating New York City signage and spare platforms for each character work well for the proceedings, as do Sue Griffin’s costumes. More than anything, “Dear Jack” will likely appeal to audience members whose parents lived through World War II and can identify with elements of the show.
Still, with talk of nuclear weapons and World War III in the news, the shadow of the Russo-Ukrainian War looms large over this wartime rom-com. When Jack goes on a tear about his admiration of Winston Churchill, Volodymyr Zelenskyy comes to mind, our modern-day equivalent in an olive T-shirt.
Virginia Rep’s “Dear Jack, Dear Louise,” plays through April 17 at Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, Hanover, 23069. For more information, visit va-rep.org or call (804) 282-2620.