Rajiv Joseph’s epistolary play begins with some meager clues to the mysteries at its heart – a stack of letters from a man named Suresh, and an origami sculpture of a bird – before it slowly unfolds into the lovely stories of four characters, beautifully portrayed in what’s largely a series of monologues, who seek connection, try to understand love, and live with grief and regret.
The first character we meet, Melody (Ali Ahn), is sitting at a desk writing a letter to a man she doesn’t know about a relative she never met. It was only after her grand-uncle, a Catholic priest named Father Hashimoto, had died that she even learned about his existence.
Melody, the daughter of a Korean-American father and a Japanese-American mother, was the family member elected to travel from her hometown of Seattle to Nagasaki to attend his funeral. That is where she discovered, among his few possessions, the origami bird, and the stack of letters from Suresh, with a Boston return address.
Intrigued, she decides to write Suresh, and offer to send him the letters he wrote to the priest. He doesn’t respond. She continues to write him anyway, a series of monologues that are funny and touching, but might make you wonder: Where is this going?
That’s when we meet Suresh. Those familiar with Joseph’s plays might recognize that Suresh was the main character — an 18-year-old Indian-American genius at origami – in “Animals Out of Paper.” And sure enough we first meet Suresh (Ramiz Monsef) as an 18-year-old who had attended a week-long origami convention in Nagasaki, where he met Father Hashimoto – or more precisely, where the priest had watched while Suresh had folded the bird that was now in Melody’s possession. Hashimoto had evidently tracked down Suresh’s name and address and written him a letter. Suresh’s first letter (monologue) is in response to that letter. After the priest replies (a response we do not see on stage), Suresh’s second letter angrily lists eight reasons why he found the priest’s second letter offensive: “Number two: I don’t want you and your congregation to pray for me…Number five: When I folded that bird, Jesus didn’t help me. Why would you even suggest that he did? That’s insulting. Also, I’m Hindu and an Atheist.” Yet Suresh continues to write to the priest over the next ten years—very sporadically.
Indeed, it’s part of the charm, and much of the humor, of “Letters of Suresh” that both Melody (to Suresh) and Suresh (to Father Hashimoto) constantly profess to be poor letter writers – who isn’t these days? – even as they pour their thoughts and secrets and insecurities and longings into their correspondence. Melody, who teaches writing to freshmen but gave up her dream of becoming a writer years ago, says “the only way I’m able to write anything these days, is simply to write “Dear Suresh” at the top of a piece of paper. It’s like entering a password, or flashing a fake ID to my subconscious. Suddenly I’m in, and I can express myself with a pen across paper. So… Dear Suresh—I’m just gonna do that. The only thing is, when I’m done, I’m still going to have to actually put a stamp on this and send it along to Boston… otherwise, my subconsciousness will figure out that I’m tricking it, and shut this whole charade down.”
A third character Amelia (Kellie Overbey) is the only one who does not write a single letter. She is the object of Suresh’s affection, not reciprocated; they only text and Facetime, which (to my mind) is evidence enough that she’s not right for him.
It’s through letter writing that the characters reveal themselves – to us, yes (it’s how we learn of the moments they most regret), but also to themselves. And when we finally meet Father Hashimoto (Thom Sesma) — only through a letter, of course – the playwright reveals what he’s up to: The play bravely leaps from the personal to larger points, involving both global history and current events, that are powerful, if perhaps a tad too pat.
What’s most impressive about “Letters of Suresh” is the rich use of origami as a metaphor. There are hints along the way. Suresh points out the vast application of the principles of the art of Japanese paper folding — “Satellites use origami. Airbags. Anything that needs to unfold, and so needs to be folded just right.” Melody confesses that a letter she wrote years ago would have changed her life had she sent it, but “those words got folded into an envelope. And nobody ever unfolded them.”
As the stories in “Letters of Suresh” unfold, and we see different sides of the characters, the play folds into a shape that is unusual, and beautiful, for those with the patience to discern it.
Letters of Suresh
Written by Rajiv Joseph
Directed by May Andrales
Second Stage’s Kiser Theater through October 24, 2021
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $50 – $125
Scenic design by Mikiko Suzuki; costume design by Amy Clark; lighting design by Jiyoun Chang; sound design by Charles Coes & Nathan Roberts; projection design by Shawn Duan;
Cast: Ali Ahn, Razif Monsef, Kellie Overbey, Thom Sesma.