Playwright Christy Hall reinvents the epistolary play (one based on an exchange of letters) with her zesty, captivating World War II romance Yours, Isabel, now getting its official American Premiere at Hollywood’s Actors Co-op, and an all-around splendid one at that.

The letters exchanged here are those written by spunky Irish-American Isabel McMeniman (Heather Chesley) and her Italian-American beau Nick D’Angelo (Rick Marcus) from the early, pre-Pearl Harbor days of 1941 to the war’s end four years later. That Isabel and Nick are real-life figures makes Hall’s fictionalization of their romance all the more impactful.

Isabel and Nick’s epistolary exchanges first introduce us to the Trenton, New Jersey born-and-raised couple as Isabel waits on the home front while Nick undergoes basic training down South. “Spunky” doesn’t begin to describe the feisty, ahead-of-her-time Isabel, who smokes cigarettes, prefers USO dances to staying home pining for her sweetheart, and dreams of a big-city life outside Jersey. Meanwhile, Nick endures his introduction to military life with all-American good humor, optimism, and an obvious affection for the girl he’s left behind.

Audiences expecting another A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters (with its two seated letter-writers reading from their scripts throughout) have another thing coming, and an invigorating one at that.

For one thing, Isabel and Nick do actually meet, and touch, and kiss on several occasions, allowing Chesley and Marcus to truly interact as Gurney’s longtime friends do not. At other times, Isabel tells us her story directly, in voice-over fashion. Far more significant are the rapid-fire, back-and-forth conversational exchanges that playwright Hall creates out of Isabel and Nick’s letters. Chesley plays a number of two-person scenes opposite herself, creating distinctive voices for Isabel’s best girlfriend and her long-deceased Irish mother. Other scenes have Marcus in a variety of supporting roles, including a soldier Isabel dances with at one of those USO affairs, an elderly priest from whom Isabel seeks advice, and the no-nonsense factory owner who gives Isabel the Rosie-The-Riveter job she’s been dreaming of.

Like Jonathan Demme’s Swing Shift, which had a World War II Goldie Hawn blossoming as a factory worker while her G.I. husband fought the Nazis thousands of miles away, Yours, Isabel shows how home-front jobs gave mid-20th Century housewives a taste of a life outside the home, thereby planting seeds for the women’s movement two decades later. Isabel is no shrinking violet of a wife, content to sit at home baking cookies as she waits for her man to return, and it is ultimately its heroine’s liberation from traditional societal strictures that give Yours, Isabel its grit and bite.

If ever a production could be called a collaborative effort, it’s Yours, Isabel at the Co-op, Savell’s ingenious, visually striking direction joining forces with two superb actors, a gifted young playwright, and a team of topnotch designers to create an unexpectedly powerful two-hander.

Savell makes constantly varied use of scenic designer Gary Lee Reed’s lovely, abstract set, which Lisa D. Katz lights with imagination and flair, taking us smoothly and effortlessly from interior scenes to outdoor, and from small town to big city. Savell’s rich sound design aids immensely in setting scene and mood. Paula Higgins has created 1940s-appropriate costumes, with a tip of the hat to a soldier’s jacket that, worn backwards, turns into a priest’s cassock, or a close approximation. Hair designer Krys Fehervari has given Chesley one of those distinctive ‘40s dos and Marcus a neat soldier’s trim. Choreographer Julie Hall completes the design team with panache.

Still, there wouldn’t be a Yours, Isabel without two stellar leads as Isabel and Nick (and those assorted cameos) and Chesley and Marcus are indeed that stellar pair. Chesley has just the right Jersey Girl sass (and spot-on accent) to make Isabel come alive, along with poignancy and depth we discover along the way. Marcus matches her in sparkle, charm, and warmth as Nick, along with his terrific supporting turns as (among others) a New York City taxi driver and the radio announcer who informs us and the world of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the end of the war in Germany four long years later.

Yours, Isabel is produced by David Scales. Brook Carlson is stage manager.

With Yours, Isabel, Actor’s Co-op has a play certain to resonate with its older subscribers, but also one whose appeal is universal enough to touch the hearts of teenagers. After all, who among us can’t relate to being far away from the one we love?

Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
February 3, 2012
Photos: Lindsay Schnebly

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