Rajiv Joseph’s plays take place all over the world: Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (Iran), Describe the Night (Russia, Poland and East Germany), Guards at the Taj (India) and Gruesome Playground Injuries (United States). His new play Letters of Suresh (now at The Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater) which takes the protagonist from his 2008 Animals out of Paper through the next eleven years of his life is set in Seattle, Boston and Nagasaki, Japan. Starting as a sort of mystery, Letters of Suresh becomes both a magical and spiritual journey as its four characters try to find forgiveness, reconciliation and peace.
Although the characters never meet in person, they communicate mostly through letters that are spoken by the actors directly to the audience, and then halfway through the play, in texting which appears on the back screen as well as Facetime from across the world. Letters of Suresh is the perfect play for the pandemic as its characters are separated from each other across the stage as they declaim their letters, a reminder to all of us that without meeting in person we can communicate in writing. And the letters presented as monologues are never dry or dusty, but vibrant and revealing as if the other person is opposite you on the other side of a room or table.
Living in Seattle, Melody Park (Ali Ahn in a luminous, spirited performance which draws us into the story), a Japanese-American college teacher of freshman composition, has just returned from her first trip to Japan for the funeral of her 93-year-old great-uncle, a priest in Nagasaki, whom she never knew about before. While there, she was given a box of letters sent to him by Suresh Thakur, Bostonian origami genius and scientist, who became a pen pal of her great uncle after attending the annual origami conference in Nagasaki when he was 17 years old (recounted in the earlier play.) Melody going through her own life crisis writes to Suresh to ask if she should return his letters to him, but as she does not get an answer she continues to write periodically.
Eventually she reads them and we hear what Suresh has written to Father Hashimoto as Suresh develops and matures over the previous ten years. In Ramiz Monsef’s intensely layered performance, we meet Suresh from ages 17 – 28, from a bored college student, to a grieving lover rejected by his older married partner, a confused and angry man who has never gotten over his mother’s death when she was hit by a car, and his eventual move to Nagasaki to the community in which Father Hashimoto lived where he finds a measure of contentment. We eventually hear the story of how Suresh and Hashimoto encountered each other at the conference, what origami means to each of them, and how color disappears from Suresh’s life when he is depressed which is depicted on stage. His letters are confessional and revealing, traveling from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other.
Later he gets in touch with Amelia (Kellie Overbey who created Suresh’s origami mentor in Animals out of Paper), the older woman, a museum curator, that he loved, and they reach out to each other from Nagasaki to Boston. It is she who writes to Melody to tell her that Suresh left for Japan on receiving her letter about the death of her uncle. Ultimately, we hear Father Hashimoto in his heartbreaking last letter to Suresh which is found in the pocket of his coat which is forwarded by Amelia to Melody and ends on a note of peace. As Hashimoto, Thom Sesma has the serenity and the wisdom one would expect of a Japanese priest who has come to terms with life.
Director May Adrales’ involving and captivating production which evolves slowly is aided by a beautiful production design by projection designer Shawn Duan on Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams’ unit set. Although the set is usually colored blue or grey by Jiyoun Chang’s lighting design, the slide projections occasionally take us by surprise, depicting birds in flight across the stage or origami animals in large size that simply take your breath away. Amy Clark’s simple costumes immediately define the characters. The appropriate sound design and original music is the work of Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts.
In writing Letters of Suresh, author Rajiv Joseph has elevated the epistolary style to a new height in playwrighting. Aside from telling a good story, the play is also a moving, spiritual experience about hopes, hurts and heartbreaks as well as building relationships that help one grow. With an excellent cast entirely attuned to the author’s purpose, Letters of Suresh is a magical experience in a form of dramaturgy one doesn’t encounter often these days but which is quite relevant to our current moment.
Letters of Suresh (through October 24, 2021)
Second Stage Theater
Tony Kiser Theater, 305 W. 43rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-541-4516 or visit http://www.2ST.com
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission