By Lynn Venhaus

Playwright Ken Ludwig uses the written word like music in a symphony as his love letter to his parents, and actors Ryan Lawson-Maeske and Molly Burris make the heart-tugging “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” sing.

Now playing from June 9 to June 26 at the New Jewish Theatre, this dramatic comedy is an unexpected pleasure from its look back at an era of “The Greatest Generation” to its intimate love story that reinforces the power of human connection, no matter how many miles between.

With the help of the expressive performers who make the written words leap off the stationery, director Sharon Hunter has moved the pair around just enough in the confined space to keep focus on the two lonely souls forging a deep, long-lasting bond through war-time correspondence.

The challenge for Lawson-Maeske and Burris is to engage without making reading letters static, and they showcase their substantial skills for creating sincere portraits of two different personalities reaching out.

Lawson-Maeske, a two-time St. Louis Theater Circle awards nominee, for “Tribes” in 2018 and “Photograph 51” in 2020, is endearing as reserved U.S. Army Captain Jack Ludwig, stationed at a military hospital in Oregon, who writes a formal letter to Louise Rabiner, an aspiring dancer and actress in New York City, because his father suggested it. The dads know each other.

Ryan Lawson-Maeske. Photo by Jon Gitchoff

From her first response, it’s clear that Louise is a live wire, with a flair for the dramatic, and is without a filter in her missives. Webster Conservatory graduate Molly Burris seamlessly projects the Brooklyn-born chorus girl’s curiosity, grit, and sunny nature.

The outgoing Louise coaxes the more introverted doctor to share more about himself, and gradually he opens up. Thus begins a long-distance friendship that eventually turns into love over the course of several years, — 1942-1945, to be exact.

As the war escalates, so do Jack’s duties and thus, his presence in increasingly dangerous situations, as he is sent to the European front before they’ve had a chance to meet. His optimism has dissipated as he treats injured soldiers, and while Louise’s spunkiness keeps his spirits up through her caring, cheerful words, this is a love story set against the front lines of war.

As young people in their 20s, the two find common ground as pen pals, sharing their innermost thoughts and feelings. One of the warmest, most humorous exchanges is Louise’s adventures meeting Jack’s parents, his sister Betty, and his mother’s many sisters in his hometown of Coatesville, Pa.

Louise’s accounts of her audition successes and disappointments are vivid, and Jack’s frustration at not being granted a leave so they can finally meet to fulfill their plans for dinner and a show – and dancing – is palpable. Those plans keep being delayed, even by virtue of the story that we know has a happy ending, building suspense and tension as time passes (or runs out).

Before personal ads, email, texts and dating apps, people often met through acquaintances. Letters were the most common way to communicate across the miles – and have been explored eloquently in many pop culture hallmarks, like Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, the James Stewart-Margaret Sullavan romantic comedy “The Shop Around the Corner” (remade into “You’ve Got Mail” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in 1998) and the true-story based “84 Charing Cross Road” starring Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft in 1987.

Quaint by today’s standards, “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” is a sentimental journey that evokes warm memories of family members who developed similar relationships. My parents first met at a local teen hangout, then wrote letters when my dad was on a naval ship in the Pacific Ocean during the Korean War and married upon his return.

Jack and Louise are relatable, therefore we maintain interest – but that’s largely in part because sparks fly between Lawson-Maeske and Burris as they are in their rooms, no small feat. You can feel the anticipation of receiving a letter, the exhilaration after the mail arrives, and how worried Louise is when she doesn’t hear from Jack while he’s treating the wounded at other locations.

Dunsi Dai’s scenic design creates a character-driven tableau through their living quarters – conveying that he’s fastidious and she’s flamboyant. He effectively contrasts Jack’s austere military barracks with Louise’s colorful, cramped boarding house room. Vintage posters of plays and movies further enhance the old-timey ‘40s feel. To move our eyes upward, Dai has hung some of their outfits.

Molly Burris. Photo by Jon Gitchoff

The technical elements are topnotch, with Amanda Were’ sound design setting the mood with retro Big Band music and creating harrowing war action through battlefield action. Daniel LaRose’s lighting design is warm and welcoming, and Michele Friedman Siler’s period costume design successfully captures the character’s personal style.

The play’s lyrical qualities are no coincidence. Ludwig, who studied music at Harvard with Leonard Bernstein, has written the smash-hit farce “Lend Me a Tenor,” nine-time Tony Award winner in 1989 and its revival in 2010, as well as the book for the Gershwin musical “Crazy for You” in 1992 and the hilarious comedy “Moon Over Buffalo” in 1995. All are set in showbiz in another decade, so he is comfortable in the World War II setting. Ludwig is a two-time Olivier Award winner, by the way.

By drawing from hundreds of letters between his mother and father, Ludwig has found the poetry in basic connection, which is timeless and also couldn’t be timelier. The well-constructed play premiered in December 2019 – you know, the Before Times – right before the world turned upside-down. If ever a contemporary work of art tapped into ordinary people having simple yet profound daily experiences to remind us of what connects us all, it is this show.

“Dear Jack, Dear Louise” delivers a joyous show, with just two people reading letters to create an honest, heartfelt moment. Expect that tears will come – get that tissue ready.

New Jewish Theatre presents Ken Ludwig’s “Dear Jack, Dear Louise,” from June 9 through June 26, with performances on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m., at the Wool Studio Theatre at the JCCA’s Performing Arts Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive. For more information, call the box office at 314-442-3283 or visit newjewishtheatre.org

The J’s New Jewish Theatre will continue its 24th season in June with the romantic comedy, Dear Jack, Dear Louise from June 9 – 26, 2022. The show follows the tremendous success of the season’s last show, Laughter on the 23rd floor.

“I am so pleased to present the regional premier of Ken Ludwig’s sweet and earnest love story,” said artistic director Eddie Coffield.

Molly Burris

The production will be directed by Sharon Hunter, artistic director of Moonstone Theatre Company and is making her NJT directorial debut.

The show will feature a talented two-person cast, NJT veteran Ryan Lawson Maeske as Jack and Molly Burris, who will be making her NJT debut, as Louise.

The creative team is comprised of Dunsi Dai on scenery, David LaRose on lighting, Amanda Were on sound and Michele Siler on costumes.

Ryan Lawson-Maeske

“I am thrilled to be making my NJT directing debut, “said Sharon Hunter. “I am honored to help tell the real-life story of two people who fall in love while corresponding during WWII. My family worked for the USO for over 15 years and both my mother and grandmother corresponded with loved ones serving in the military during WWII and Vietnam. This play is very close to my heart,” she said.

Dear Jack, Dear Louise is inspired by the playwright’s parents romance as pen pals during World War II.

The play chronicles the romance that spans the duration of World War II between a young military doctor, stationed in Medford, Oregon, and other places, and a budding young actress whose career hopes have taken her all the way from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Given the distance between them, the only way they can conduct, let alone evolve, their relationship is through letters, exchanged at times at breakneck pace and at other times with frustrating, worrisome slowness.

The show will premiere at The J’s Wool Studio Theatre at 2 Millstone Campus Drive in St. Louis. Individual tickets for the show are $47-$54. Season tickets and flex passes, which feature a five-ticket package customized to the ticket holder’s preference are available through the Box Office, by phone 314-442-3283 or online at newjewishtheatre.org. Masks must always be worn properly covering the nose and mouth during all New Jewish Theatre productions.

Edward Coffield, Artistic Director of the New Jewish Theatre, has announced two exciting, live and in-person performances to take place in the Fall and Winter of 2021.

The first show will be Ari Axelrod’s Jewish Broadway, featuring Broadway star Ari Axelrod.  Two performances are planned, Saturday evening, October 16 and Sunday afternoon, October 17.

The second show, Cabaret at the J:  A Little Song, A little Dance, A Little Seltzer Down Your Pants! starring Eric Williams and Sharon Hunter are scheduled, on Saturday evening, December 18 and Sunday afternoon, December 19.

Tickets for all performances, which will be held at the Staenberg Family Complex in Creve Coeur, go on sale August 15 at newjewishtheatre.org

Coffield says, “We are so excited to return to live performances!  These amazing shows featuring top line talent are the perfect way to kick it off. 

We also look forward NJT’s return to the Wool Studio Theater beginning January 2022 when we will launch a full season of shows.”

ABOUT THE J:
The J is an interactive, multi-generational gathering place that offers a variety of programs and services to both the St. Louis Jewish community, and the community at large. The Jewish Community Center provides educational, cultural, social, Jewish identity-building and recreational programming and offers two, state-of-the art fitness facilities, all designed to promote physical and spiritual growth. Everyone is welcome at the J.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a multitude of obstacles to overcome for organizations of all types, and theater groups are no exception. Sharon Hunter, Artistic Director-Producer of Moonstone Theatre Company, aims to help address some of the virus-related challenges that the St. Louis theatre community faces by forming the St. Louis Theatre Community Task Force.

“As I was thinking about how to proceed with my own company in the wake of the pandemic, I started thinking it would be helpful  to get a lot of the theaters to sit down via Zoom and discuss concerns, ideas and solutions for moving forward as we navigate the future of theatre in St. Louis,” Hunter explains.

Sharon Hunter

The Task Force will address concerns including conducting safe auditions, rehearsals and performances, finding new ways to seat audiences, maintaining the visibility of the St. Louis theatre community, new ways to offer theatre experiences and recommendations for the use of personal protective equipment.

Hunter said the Task Force, which is the first of its kind in the St. Louis area, welcomes local theatre groups of all sizes. In addition to these organizations, representatives from the St. Louis County Department of Health and the Center For Disease Control have also been invited to the first online meeting to address questions and concerns.

Theatre companies invited to participate include R-S Theatrics, The Q Collective, The Midnight Company, Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble, Upstream Theater, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, COCA, Shakespeare Festival STL, Black Rep, Stray Dog Theatre, Stages St. Louis, St. Louis Actors’ Studio, The Muny, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, New Jewish Theatre, Cherokee Street Theatre, The Cabaret Project of St. Louis, Max & Louie Productions, Black Mirror Theatre, Young Liars, West End Players Guild, Tennessee Williams Festival St Louis, New Line Theatre, ERA Theatre Company, STL Fringe Festival, St Louis Shakespeare, Metro Theatre Company, That Uppity Theatre Company and the Tesseract Theatre Company.

The initial meeting of the Task Force is scheduled for Thursday, April 23, at 7 p.m. Theatre groups interested in interested in participating should contact Hunter at [email protected] to get access to the Zoom link. For more info, check their Facebook page for updates: https://www.facebook.com/STLTheatre/.

St. Louis’ vibrant theater community just got a little brighter with the addition of new performing arts organization Moonstone Theatre Company.

Moonstone was founded by St. Louis native Sharon Hunter, who serves as the company’s artistic director and producer. Hunter has made a name for herself nationally as a professional actor, singer, director and producer. Most recently Hunter was performing and producing in New York City, but decided to move back home to start Moonstone.  St. Louisans may recognize her as the original host and producer of KEZK’s “Pillow Talk” or her time hosting at Y98.

“Moonstone Theatre Company was founded in response to my vision for creating a cultural theatrical environment in St. Louis to inspire actors and artists to do their best work,” Hunter says. “St. Louis is a great theatre city and I think it’s wonderful to be a part of that cultural conversation. It is essential for the arts to contribute to this conversation particularly during challenging times.”

Hunter says the name Moonstone combines two things close to her heart.

“I have always loved the moon. I gain energy, clarity and inspiration from the moonlight. I knew I wanted the word moon somewhere in the company title,” she says. “I was also committed to finding a way to incorporate my former NYC acting coach, the late Peter Flint, and his name in there as well.  He was like a true father figure to me, and I thought that since “flint” is a stone then I could put that together and create Moonstone.”

Hunter says Moonstone will focus on producing works that challenge and enlighten audiences on important and socially relevant topics including equality, diversity, mental illness, addiction and sexual harassment and assault.

“Theatre truly is a reflection of life,” says Hunter. “I’m happy to be back in my hometown where I began and collaborate with so many talented artists and actors. There is something very special about returning to St. Louis and having the opportunity to bring new ideas and experiences to an art form I dearly love.”

“How exciting for St. Louis that another wonderful Theatre Artist with great entrepreneurial chutzpah is broadening our vibrant theatre community,” enthused Edward Coffield, the artistic director and producer at New Jewish Theatre.  “There is such great legacy here in St. Louis when savvy theatre practitioners are willing to plant roots and continue the tradition of great theatre in St. Louis.”

Moonstone’s debut production, “The House of Blue Leaves” by John Guare, will open at the Wool Studio Theatre at the Jewish Community Center (2 Millstone Campus Drive, Creve Coeur, 63146) on Thursday, July 16, 2020, directed by Annamaria Pileggi. Auditions for the show will be held Saturday, October 26 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the JCC, and callbacks will be held at the theater on Monday, October 28. Those wanting more information about the audition process can register online here or email [email protected]

Moonstone Theatre Company’s Mission Statement

Moonstone Theatre Company is a new professional performing arts organization which will offer the community a wide range of quality theatrical productions while supporting local arts and education. Moonstone Theatre looks to inspire, entertain and challenge audiences with productions that range from the classics to new works. Moonstone Theatre Company celebrates the power of the theatre to illuminate our diversity and enlighten our shared humanity.