Walking into the Black Box Theater for "84 Charing Cross Road," one might think you're accidently walking onstage.
The room has been transformed, as intended with black box theaters, to put the story, quite literally, at the center. The audience joins the characters inside the bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road.
In search of a good book, Helene Hanff, played by Jennifer Alton, sends a letter thousands of miles to Marks and Co., bookstore at 84 Charing Cross Road. Her letter is received by Frank Doel, played by Andrew Troth, who is happy to oblige her request.
That one letter sparks a friendship that spans decades.
The play unfolds solely through letters, with each character reading out what they have transcribed. It's a difficult format that could easily lose audience members if done wrong. "84 Charing Cross Road" does it right.
Each of the letters captures the character's voice perfectly, deepening the familiarity not only between the writer and recipient, but the audience as well.
The contents of the letter contain the familiar commentaries of an everyday life, enhanced by the wit of avid readers. Funny remarks fill the lines of the letters, letting the audience in on the jokes.
With each letter the audience sees the relationship between the characters, specifically Frank and Helene, grow. Frank starts off with full British formality, Helene less so. As the letters amass and the years pass, the transcripts change in tone and familiarity, though Frank takes a little longer. Helene is already calling him her chosen nickname "Frankie" while he still attaches a Miss in front of her salutation. With enough time, the politeness sheds.
Through Frank, Helene finds a connection with the other employees of the small shop. Cecily, played by Emily Rose Duea, is the first to write to her on her own. Helene and her, along with the other members of the shop, soon create a fond friendship.
The choreography of the character's movement is fascinating to watch, as the requested books and responding letters make their way from Frank's hands to Helene's.
Though separated by a great distance, the characters are close in heart and on stage. Helene's apartment lies raised in the center of the bookshop. She takes up residence in the heart of the store, and the hustle and bustle of everyone in it surrounds and embraces her.
Still Helene is not quite there, her desk raised above the shop, close but not enough. With every failed attempt to plan a visit Helene's letters convey a sense of homesickness for a place she has not seen and people she has never met. The audience shares her sense of longing, heightened by the moments where the two characters and their two worlds seem so close, sharing a stage, turning toward each other, but still miles away.
"84 Charing Cross Road" runs through Feb. 3, with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturday, and 2 p.m. on Sundays.