The production open on Harry Weinberg (normally Adam Heller but this night the role was played by Philip Hoffman) lying in bed who is then joined by his wife, Frannie (Cheryl Stern)… or the ghost of his wife, as we learn. Harvey is being haunted but not by the ghost beside him, he is being haunted by his past, and decisions need to be made in order to resolve his nightmares.
What was most enjoyable about A Letter To Harvey Milkwas the unexpected way it ties two different moments from our human history and reminds us that these themes are very relevant today.
Throughout the show, Frannie is highly suspicious of her husband’s new acquaintance and writing teacher, Barbara Katsef. She’s not jealous of Barbara or afraid her husband may be interested in her romantically (partly because Frannie is a ghost but mostly because Harry definitely sees Barbara as a friend AND also, later Frannie learns that Barbara is a lesbian). Frannie is just worried that her kind-hearted husband may be getting close to telling someone about things he never shared with her when she was alive. “Don’t tell her anything you haven’t told me” she warns. Too much information can be dangerous, and Barbara asks too many questions that Frannie is concerned may be used against Harry.
From the title, you might think the entire play is about the city supervisor and gay rights icon Harvey Milk (Michael Bartoli) but he is only plays a supporting role in a story about retired kosher butcher Harry Weinberg (Adam Heller) and his writing teacher, Barbara (Julia Knitel). We go back to 1986 where Harry signs up for Barbara’s class. Of course, Harry doesn’t believe he has much to write about until he composes a letter to his former customer and friend, who just so happens to be one Harvey Milk. He was saddened by Harvey’s choice to be open about his sexuality, although he was touched and impressed by unity that was a result of the assassination. During his marriage to Frannie, they never really discussed the more painful or disappointing aspects of their lives, they just tried to be as happy as they could be.
There are 17 songs by composer Laura I. Kramer written with lyricists Cheryl Stern and Ellen M. Schwartz. Through the stories and songs, we learn that Harry and Barbara have a lot more than their religion in common. Since coming out, she is not close with her parents in Connecticut and much to Frannie’s dismay, Harry isn’t as close with their daughter since Frannie’s passing.
As stated earlier, we are dealing with multiple stories in one and Director Evan Pappas handles the different plots of the story by honoring them all. We never lose track of where we are in history. And we never lose sight that all of this history is intertwined nor do we lose sight of the fact that it can easily repeat itself.
Whether we are in the present and dealing with Barbara’s non-accepting family, in the past reliving Harvey Milk’s life, or further in the past experiencing Harry’s memories of Nazi Germany, it all comes together beautifully and proves each aspect to be relevant right now.