The beauty of the epistolary format — letters between characters read back and forth — is that its simplicity focuses the audience on the strengths of writing and performance more than on plot or setting. A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters” is likely the best-known example. The world-premiere production of Julia Cameron’s “Love in the DMZ: A Play in Letters” at the Actors Workout Studio provides an interesting and moving example of the epistolary style, as a couple try to keep their marriage together while separated by the Vietnam War. James Paradise directs two strong actors, who give the show emotional honesty and power.
In the spring of 1968, Husband (Fran Montano) has been sent to Vietnam to lead a group of young soldiers. He and his loving Wife (Peggy Goss) comfort each other with lyrical, sometimes silly love letters. As time goes by, Husband’s letters get darker, representing the awful situations he’s seeing. Wife, although scared by the letters, tries to stay supportive and keep their bond alive.
When Husband witnesses some atrocities, however, he hesitates to send Wife more letters, unsure of what to say or do in the face of horror. Wife suffers under the silence, imagining the worst, and the security of their marital bond begins to unravel.
Cameron’s writing is alternately sharp and poetic, and it keeps a believable balance between romance and reality. Her characters are intelligent (after a mundane letter describing the planting of rhododendrons, the annoyed reply is that “rhododendra” is Latin for “who cares”) and imperfect, three-dimensional enough to make compelling drama of their plight. Her use of silence to imply communication breakdown or the possibility of Husband’s death is quite effective.
Montano is convincingly haunted and morally confused as Husband, surprised by how far and how fast he has fallen from grace. His perf works best in moments of passionate conviction, when venting anger at the stupidity of the war or when he tries to explain his actions to his wife: “You are something more and better than the woman in my mind; I forgot that.”
Goss is superb as Wife, in a perf that starts with optimistic banter and ends with raw feeling. She hits the emotional highs and lows expertly, but with such shadings and subtlety that it’s always real and doesn’t descend into melodrama. At the play’s conclusion, her combination of jealousy, rage, hurt and love is affecting and impressive: Wife is just as wounded by the war as her husband.
D. Martyn Bookwalter’s set, where one half of the stage is Wife’s home and the other is Husband’s encampment in Vietnam — one half of a central table is a wooden kitchen table, the other half a metal military table — is an effective mirror image. A black-and-white backdrop of a slightly out-of-focus group of smiling adults and children works as a reminder of the home life and simple pleasures of friends and family that both characters are missing.