Review: Conni Massing's Dead Letter a near-perfect must-see

Conni Massing’s new work at the Gateway Theatre is a wholly immersive and emotional experience that hits key notes on the artistic score.

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How to classify Dead Letter? Certainly it’s funny, but it’s also heartbreaking. So while dramedy is an awkward mash-up, neither comedy nor drama are suitable descriptors.

Let me say this. Conni Massing’s new work at the Gateway Theatre is a wholly immersive and emotional experience that hits key notes on the artistic score. It draws laughter. It will make you think. There are sad and mysterious parts and even a few fearful moments.

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Directed by Workshop West’s Heather Inglis, Dead Letter explores a question that never seems to go away. Why is this happening to me? That Massing manages to couch this question in the quotidian experience of doing laundry is a clever hook that opens the mind of the audience to an existential exploration without the weight that often accompanies such a study.

The story begins with Amy (Lora Brovold), who has become obsessed with where the missing socks go, an irksome experience we can all relate to. Amy lives with her husband Doug (Collin Doyle) in a charming apartment with a laundry room in the basement that becomes the site of a mystery, and possibly a murder. Another apartment dweller in the building, Maggie (Maralyn Ryan) may have more answers to a variety of unexplained disappearances — from socks to former residents — than she’s letting on.

When the missing sock collides with the arrival of a long-delayed greeting card in the mail — the titular dead letter — Amy is determined to find answers. The letter is addressed to Petra, who used to live in Amy’s unit but left the building years earlier under somewhat of a cloud.

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Dead Letter Workshop West
Lora Brovold, back left, and Maralyn Ryan in Dead Letter by Conni Massing, at Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux edm

That’s really all that can be said of the plot without robbing the 90-minute one-act of its propulsive power. But here’s a hint: one of Massing’s talents is the ability to turn the tables over and over again, creating new sources of dramatic tension that keep audience members enthralled throughout the play.

The play’s combination of clean, purposeful writing, solid performances and well-constructed design (kudos to Inglis for the show’s stylish swirl of light, sound and staging) result in the kind of show that gives Edmonton its reputation as a theatrical hotbed. Indeed, the talents of Brian Bast (set and costume design), Matt Schuurman (production design), Amy Farrow (lighting design) and Rebecca Merkley (composer and sound design) could not align more favourably. The stage floor itself is covered with gigantic letters and postcards, but also moves with other images creating an almost Dr. Who-like aura. Merkley’s soundscape — dripping pipes in the basement, feet shuffling outside the door — feels like something from an old radio play.

As Amy, Brovold is a presence, displaying remarkable timing and touch. She enters the stage area — an arena with four banks of seats in a round configuration — with a fierce energy. Two red socks went into the laundry, and only one emerged. Did someone steal the sock from the dryer while Amy was upstairs?

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And who tacked the pair of hot pink panties that turn out to be Petra’s to the bulletin board? Brovold strides about the stage, a woman on a mission. She’s funny, yes, but also frantic, and you just know it’s not really about the laundry.

Her husband knows it, too. Doug tries to distract his wife with a variety of shiny items such as new kitchen appliances. But he is scared to venture into the swamp, the real source of the problem. Doug travels for work; he is conveniently not available. “I gotta run,” is a signature line.

The emotional work that needs to be done in this story is handled through Amy’s relationship with Maggie, who used to be the caretaker in the building but now shows she cares by bringing baked goods to Amy and Doug. But Maggie is addled and evasive. Is it her aging brain? Or something else? The final scene between Amy and Maggie is live theatre gold, tense, moving, and insightful.

I don’t often say a show is a must-see because most aren’t. And while the one-act time limit leads to some pacing issues toward the end of Dead Letter, the small-budget show is pretty darn close to perfect.

It will make you proud to call this cold and creative city home.

REVIEW

Dead Letter, a world premiere at Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre
Playwright Conni Massing
Director Heather Inglis
Featuring Lora Brovold, Collin Doyle, Maralyn Ryan
Where Gateway Theatre, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
When Through June 2
Tickets From $30 are available on the website at workshopwest.org or by calling 780-477-5955

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