By Wesley James
There are very easy traps that The Other Theatre Company could fall into as it delves deeper into telling the stories of the Other – stories of the marginalized, generalized, abused, oversimplified, misunderstood, or rejected. Often in defending or exemplifying the Other, we lose a portion of the truthfulness or humanity endemic to the characters. In exhilarating defiance of these misrepresentations that theatre-goers have come to expect, playwrights Bryan Renaud and Carin Silkaitis have penned Other Letters, taking us back to the refreshing basics of human interaction.
The play is a single, rhythmic, honest story told through letters being written by two people at two tables. There’s not much to summarize – two queer humans love each other across the tumult of an entire life, grow together, fall apart, and pick each other back up. The gimmick here is that, like A.R. Gurney's Love Letters, TOTC's premiere will feature a new cast each night, including Chicago heavyweights Alex Weisman, Janet Ulrich Brooks, Mark David Kaplan, Madrid St. Angelo, Will Allan, and more.
As Other Letters progresses, its consistent pacing becomes comforting, a sense of structure as we find ourselves more and more invested in rocky tides. The performances are delightfully limited by the structure; there’s something to the actors' inability to interact directly despite sitting side by side. This gives the letters more potency and focus. The simplicity and elegance of the medium mirrors that of the concept; We are even reminded throughout that there is value in writing letters that the newer, less personal methods of communication can’t match.
On the surface, Other Letters holds up as moving, emotional, and entertaining. Under analysis, this play is doing something rarely seen and very important. By eschewing archetypes and telling LGTBQ stories in the full spirit of sincerity, we’re humanizing a group that’s often misunderstood by those on the outside, while also giving the members of the group truly accessible media. Maybe more importantly, the literary theme of truthful queer relationships and the theatrical theme of going back to our roots combine into a special, quiet statement of acceptance – an established baseline for queer stories in our culture and our lives, like a subliminal hug. By understanding that these stories have been Othered and starting them from new and firm foundations, TOTC is paving the way for complex and human LGBTQ characters in more complex theatrical environments.
Other Letters is brave but never abrasive, fun but never dismissive, and cute but never corny. It is one of the most important things theater can be – powerfully true and capable of effecting change.