Of course, there are no dating apps in this 1940s-set world premiere at Arena Stage, which speaks to the timelessness of love’s whims. The two characters, Army doctor Jack Ludwig and aspiring Broadway performer Louise Rabiner, are based on the playwright’s parents, who exchanged hundreds of letters during World War II. Livened by performances from Jake Epstein and Amelia Pedlow, Ludwig’s latest work is a poignant, funny tribute to the enduring power of human connection.
“Dear Jack, Dear Louise” swiftly establishes the unlikelihood of its courtship. Stationed at a military hospital in Medford, Ore., Jack is shy, earnest and self-deprecating. Louise is a self-assured spitfire living in a boardinghouse in Manhattan. Their fathers connect them, with the subtle suggestion that they “meet and get acquainted in a social way,” and the two begin to fall in love from afar.
Ludwig, known for the farces “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Crazy for You,” has fun with the unconventional wooing. (An exchange in which Louise describes meeting Jack’s sprawling family, despite having not yet met Jack himself, is particularly delightful.) The letter-reading conceit doesn’t grow tiresome, thanks to Ludwig’s smartly paced script and Jackie Maxwell’s assured direction.
Epstein plays Jack with bookish likability and a nervous smile, even as the war erodes his optimism. But Pedlow gets the showier part and delivers. As Louise vies for a role in Broadway’s “Arsenic and Old Lace,” Pedlow performs the audition scene with bravado. When the second act serves up heavier material, Pedlow converts her character’s manic energy into anguish. Although the plot constraints prevent the love interests from locking eyes, the two stars align with effortless chemistry.
Beowulf Boritt’s set design captures the characters’ contrasting personas: Jack’s quarters are spare and sterile, while Louise’s home is comparatively cluttered. Jason Lyons’s lighting heightens the drama, particularly during the gut punch of an Act 1 closer.
That scene sets up a challenging second act, as Jack departs for the European front and this largely comedic play increasingly engages with World War II’s atrocities. The tonal balancing act wobbles a bit, but there’s also poetry to the genuine depiction of love in a world gone mad.
Although the lovers struggle to arrange a meeting, the knowledge that they’re based on the playwright’s parents lends an air of inevitability to their romance. Still, the climax arrives with tear-jerking catharsis all the same. If “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” is a love letter to Ludwig’s parents, the playwright signs off with irresistible sincerity.
Dear Jack, Dear Louise, by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Jackie Maxwell. Set, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, Jason Lyons. About 1 hour 45 minutes. $41-$95. Through Dec. 29 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300. arenastage.org.