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A.R. Gurney’s ‘Love Letters’ is timeless

By Staff | Mar 13, 2009

A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters” may be considered a period piece (1937), but it is actually timeless. Nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, it centers on just two characters, Melissa and Andrew. Using the epistolary form sometimes found in novels, they sit side by side at tables and read the correspondence – in which they discuss their hopes and ambitions, dreams and disappointments, victories and defeats – that have passed between them throughout their separated lives.

These childhood friends born to wealth start a correspondence with party thank-you notes and summer camp postcards. Attached, to a degree, romantically, they continue to exchange letters through boarding school and college – Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (Thomas J. Bartis, the newest member of The Company) excels at Yale and in law school, and Melissa Gardner (Marsha Wagner, one of The Company’s founders) gets herself kicked out of several good schools but is deemed by her art instructor an excellent artist. It is a 50-year correspondence between an uptight over-achiever and a fragile and ultimately damaged artist. Both characters vacillate between being dear and being prickly. The play catches them at all the stages of their lives.

They both marry others but continue to stay in touch, even when Andy is elected to the U.S. Senate. But his “Senator Image” becomes increasingly important, so sharing intimacies and spending time with Melissa is no longer a part of his “plan.”

Thus, when Melissa – very vulnerable now and drinking too much, estranged from her family, and now only dabbling in art – really needs her old friend, it’s too late.

Gurney’s grasp of his concept seemed to get better as the play progressed It was clear that Andy was growing up while Melissa was stuck in Teenage Girl. She never liked to write letters and is one who, in today’s world, would undoubtedly be chattering on her cell phone all the time. Andy, on the other hand, loves to write and considers each of his letters a gift to Melissa.

The climax of the show comes in the form of the letter Andy writes to Melissa’s mother after Melissa’s sudden, unexpected death. In it Andy makes eloquently clear how much they really meant and gave to each other over the years – physically apart, perhaps, but spiritually as close as only true lovers can be. It is only at this sad ending that Andy and the audience realize they were really love letters all along.

Wagner and Bartis are very good; they play well off each other and were very effective. Both created believable characters. ‘Though Bartis was quite stiff in the first act he nonetheless seemed to have a good grasp of his “persona,” and his letters from school were exceptionally well done. Wagner, exhibiting the same grasp, really became a tongue-tied teenager, body language and all – the letters from camp were priceless!

I had seen an earlier Company production of this play, directed by Wagner herself. In this instance, John Bartis directed, and his input brought out a very nuanced performance from Wagner.

This member of the audience, at least, felt as if she were a part of the conversation – not participating, but in the room with the two characters.

When we entered the Schoolhouse Theatre, the stage was set very simply – two tables, two chairs, two lamps. The floor lamp was just perfect, but the lamp on Melissa’s table was distraction as the shade and light were right at the height of Wagner’s head.

Staged readings of this sort are well-served in the Schoolhouse Theater setting with its thrust-stage arrangement which lends itself to a greater sense of intimacy and involvement with the audience.