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NY Theater Reviews

Simon Williams and Lucy Fleming/ Ph: Carol Rosegg

WARTIME MISSIVES

By SANDY MACDONALD

We get a privileged glimpse of WWII resistance through a real-life couple's letters.

You have only to look around to realize that the “greatest generation” is fast fading away. Within a decade or so, we will likely have lost access to live, firsthand accounts of an era when ordinary citizens risked their lives to combat the threat of demagoguery around the world. 
 
So it’s a rare and heartening experience to get reacquainted, on a quite personal level, with British film star Celia Johnson, best known for playing the romantically tempted housewife in the film Brief Encounter, and with her real-life husband, author/adventurer Peter Fleming. We get to know them through snippets of the letters they exchanged during World War II: Johnson as she played den mother to eight children and three widows evacuated to the countryside, while continuing to act in war-effort propaganda films and serving as a local constable; Fleming as he engaged in top-secret (and very dangerous) disinformation tactics from his post in India.
 
The young couple, separated by continents, trade notes on their infant son, Nicholas (aka “The Sausage”), confess their worries (Celia was subject to “the willies”), and constantly – humorously – reaffirm their mutual devotion. It’s hard to imagine a more charming pair, except perhaps the two actors onstage reading these excerpts and occasionally adding a bit of explanatory filler. They are Celia’s post-war baby Lucy Fleming (whose imminent birth prevented her mother from attending the 1947 Oscars ceremony) and her husband Simon Williams (whom you might recognize, retroactively, as the dashing young scion in the original binge-worthy TV series Upstairs Downstairs).
 
You couldn’t really call this production a play. It’s a reading, supplemented with interjections and projections. However, this particular pair brings two extraordinary lives back to life, and you get to share in the intimate memories, amid an audience of rapt listeners. If this is not drama in the classical sense, it comes close enough.