Love story: Northlight's 'Dear Jack, Dear Louise' a testament to a lifelong romance
"Dear Jack, Dear Louise" - ★ ★ ★
"Dear Jack, Dear Louise," Ken Ludwig's sweet, epistolary tale currently running at Northlight Theatre, hits all the rom-com notes: boy and girl meet cute, banter affectionately, fall in love, endure a rough patch and, well, you can guess the rest. The ending is never in doubt in Ludwig's tenderhearted, two-hander, which was inspired by the real-life love story of his parents, Jacob and Louise.
Their romance commenced during World War II when -- at the urging of their fathers -- Captain Jacob (Jack) Ludwig, an army physician stationed in Medford, Oregon, began corresponding with Louise Rabiner, an aspiring Broadway actress living in Brooklyn.
Jack (Casey Hoekstra, a most affable everyman) is unassuming, self-conscious and committed to his work. Louise (the peppery Sarah Price, who recalls a young Rosalind Russell) is an outgoing young woman committed to her career.
The action, which unfolds over several years, begins in 1942 with Jack's initial, rather prosaic missive, to which Louise responds "you can do better than that."
And so he does.
Sharing bits of their lives, they become increasingly comfortable with each other, as evidenced by their shift from "Dear Captain Ludwig" and "Dear Miss Rabiner" salutations to the more familiar "Jack" and "Louise."
Over time, these opposites attract. Jack delights in Louise's success and encourages her to pursue her professional dreams. Louise admires his dedication and worries about his safety when he's sent first to the Pacific and later to Europe on missions he can't discuss.
Their efforts to meet in person are stymied by Jack's deployment to an undisclosed location in Europe. It coincides with Louise's big break, a national tour of "Hellzapoppin," a Broadway tuner that is among the many cultural and historical references punctuating the play. Among them is a scene from Joseph Kesselring's "Arsenic and Old Lace," which Louise performs at an audition (delightfully delivered by Price).
Sporadic mail delivery and fierce military campaigns (effectively conjured by sound designer Eric Backus) compound the anguish of their separation, which is accompanied by misunderstandings and indiscretions that nearly derail their romance.
Of course their union is inevitable, and the play concludes with the couple's first face-to-face encounter, which charmingly recalls a moment Alfred Eisenstaedt immortalized in his iconic 1945 photo of a sailor and nurse in Times Square on V-J Day.
Ludwig mostly keeps sentiment in check in this gently humorous play, which takes a solemn turn in the second act that Hoekstra and Price navigate convincingly under director Jessica Fisch, who sets a breezy pace.
The challenge Fisch and her actors face is how to establish a connection between characters who don't look at each other but still react to each other. In some scenes, Fisch often has the actors occupy the same space (Jack's hospital office on stage right, Louise's apartment on stage left), even though their characters are thousands of miles apart. Fisch's staging suggests the developing connection between the characters, which Fisch makes obvious in the first act when -- in a visual reflection of their growing intimacy -- Jack removes his uniform jacket and Louise changes her clothes.
Hoekstra and Price make it work. Earnest and personable, they have a nice chemistry and an easy rhythm. Their performances are so genuine you almost wish their letters were real.
In the program notes, Ludwig reveals that before his mother died, she destroyed the letters she and his father wrote to each other. The lovely messages that make up "Dear Jack, Dear Louise" are Ludwig's creation. And what a creation it is: a testament to his parents' enduring love.
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Location: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie (847) 673-6300, northlight.org
Showtimes: 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday, through Aug. 7. Also, 7 p.m. July 24 and 7:30 p.m. July 26
Running time: About 1 hour, 45 minutes, with intermission
Parking: Parking available in adjacent lot and garage
Rating: For most audiences
COVID-19 precautions: Masks required