Northlight Theatre

What is so impressive about Arnold Wesker’s Love Letters on Blue Paper is how much tension the play derives from what the characters don’t say. As in the film 78 Charing Cross, the simple writing of a letter becomes an action as powerful as any plot could want.

Set in London in 1975, Wesker’s deceptively simple story is as textured as a novel. Victor Marsden, an influential, now retired British labor leader, knows he’s dying of leukemia. The few months left make him suddenly aware of the slowness of time and the specialness of everything around him. Confiding in his art historian friend and literary consultant Maurice Stapleton, Victor compares himself to a German deserter in the final days of World War II: about to be shot, the man repeatedly delayed his execution by requesting several last meals of barley soup–until, like a miracle, the Russians arrived and saved him.

A good agnostic, Victor won’t trust in miracles. His delaying tactic is to work on his unpublished essay on art and democracy, the expression of a reformer’s reluctance to leave behind a messy, unfinished world. (Victor feels especially betrayed by what he sees as the English labor movement’s capitulation to management: “Capitalism has created an enemy in its own image, monstrous like its own.”) Inspired by his socialist hero, the Victorian art critic John Ruskin, Victor hopes this manuscript will be his valedictory, an 11th-hour offering to the botched world he has to leave,

Except that Victor fears he has written it so coldly it can never touch an audience. Furious at the senselessness and injustice Of his coming death, torn between “no afterlife I can conceive of and no past I can feel in peace with,” Victor can’t summon the strength to finish the job.

But there is a great strength in Victor’s life–and it comes from some very different writing. Over the last year Sonia Marsden, the working-class wife whom Victor has lived with for 41 years, has been sending her husband letters written on blue British postal paper.

These remarkable love letters come from a woman who speaks so tersely she seems to be rationing her words and who stubbornly strides through the house as if repelling boarders, a woman Victor has accused of seeing the world too simply in terms of good and evil. But Sonia’s letters, confessions she could never speak in person, are a remarkable, almost scary, outpouring of fervent memories of a doubting courtship, and a growing, finally unparalleled love. Though Victor never told her he was dying, Sonia has filled the letters with her resilient certainty that the moment of death will prove a “blinding light of truth” setting him free, a flash of a color he never saw before. “Trust me.”

Delivered as voice-overs until the gripping moment when she finally speaks one as she writes it, Sonia’s correspondence is an answer to Victor’s despair. Earlier Victor had told Maurice that the sole consolation he found in dying was the sheer democracy of the act: whatever his destination (and Victor feels there will be none), he would join Leonardo da Vinci, to be joined in turn by Sonia and his children. Sonia’s letters console him; they sum up so much past happiness they give Victor the courage to let go.

If Hollywood were to do Love Letters on Blue Paper, at the very end Victor and Sonia would suddenly pour out all the love the letters left unspoken. Arnold Wesker is too wise for that. When the end comes, Victor is with Maurice and Sonia happens to be at home–but no doubt certain that Victor knows she’s always with him even when she’s not.

As staged by Russell Vandenbroucke, this Northlight Theatre midwestern premiere is heartrending and uncompromisingly honest. Surrounded by Jeff Bauer’s symbolically empty frames and shrouded set, Mike Nussbaum’s dying Victor is a triumph of life–perhaps the richest performance of an accomplished career. Nussbaum fully inhabits Victor’s every moment–his panic at his mortality, his anger at how far short of the mark his essay falls, his growing serenity as Sonia’s letters come. We share his letting go of things as if we’d been immersed in Victor. For we were.

The primarily passive role of Sonia is a risky one; when an actor’s most powerful moments are voice-overs, she has to summon up a concentrated quietness and a stage presence as spiritual as physical (especially when for most of the play Sonia and Victor occupy opposite sides of the stage); like a photo, each expression must carry a thousand words–the words Wesker confines to Sonia’s letters. Mary Ann Thebus brilliantly conveys Sonia’s silent solidity, the hurt of holding in so much love and the relief of letting it out the only way she can. When Thebus touches Nussbaum, a ton of love lies in that simple act.

The part of middleman Maurice is meant, I guess, to provide someone who can listen sympathetically to Victor while triggering Sonia’s protective instincts. (At first Sonia sees Maurice as one more of the “selfish men” she thinks have used Victor all his life; later, in an unexpected show of tenderness, she suddenly kisses him on the forehead.) But even in a role that’s mainly reactions, Peter Aylward doesn’t do much to suggest why Victor needs this protege or why Sonia resents him. Aylward’s one big moment, his harrowing description of his mother’s last days, emerges as a set piece rather than as a crucial step toward reconciling Victor to his death. As a trade union official who pretends to consult Victor, Edward Wilkerson exudes a hearty venality that’s everything Victor hates. But since by now we know Victor so well, Wilkerson’s foil adds nothing to the portrait. Nussbaum creates that himself–very, very well.