My apologies to the Muses, but Love has got to be one of the most prolific sources of artistic inspiration there is. Think of how many creative works are born of a need to describe or express this essential phenomenon. We enjoy exploring what it can make people do; and when weare the ones in its grip, we feel compelled to let everyone know. There’s talking about Love (representing, examining, drawing universal conclusions); and then there’s talking to the Beloved, the need to communicate to the object of one’s affections, spawning a unique sub-genre of creative expression.
A. R. Gurney’s Love Letters – currently in production by the Bunbury Theatre Company under the direction of Steve Woodring – is about the letters two people write to one another precisely as the play is those letters. We witness Melissa Gardner (Jane Welch) and Andrew Makepeace Ladd, III (Matt Orme), now in their twilight years, seated onstage amidst a sleek, uncomplicated set, reading aloud the letters they have written to one another over a lifetime of correspondence. Their words attain a transcendent primacy.
Looking into the performance history of Love Letters reveals that the play has been staged many times since its publication in 1989. It has featured many celebrated actors over the years – as Bunbury’s program tells us: Swoosie Kurtz and Richard Thomas, Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, and Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman are just a few of them. It’s often a go-to show that can be pulled together quickly because the lines don’t require memorization.
But there’s reading, and then there’s reading. Jane Welch and Matt Orme may have scripts before them, but in no way does that prevent either one from delivering a superb and polished performance. With their voices, body language and facial expressions, they re-create an entire world for us. Within that world are these two very relatable characters who come to life in not three, but four dimensions: both Welch and Orme are excellent at evoking Melissa and Andy at the age they are when each letter is written. Given a correspondence begun in elementary school and continuing into old age, to portray the evolution of these characters convincingly is no small task.
Welch’s Melissa is feisty, frank and often very funny. Her eyes twinkle, and even her wordless reactions to Andy’s letters speak reams. For his part, Orme portrays boyish gangliness, adolescent concupiscence and adult gravitas by turns, suggesting each skillfully. In many ways, the characters are a study in contrasts, but they’re well balanced; it’s no wonder Melissa and Andy are such good friends.
Melissa balks at letter writing on various occasions, claiming it’s boring or preferring the immediacy of the telephone, but Andy is insistent. He hates the telephone, saying, “A phone call is dead as soon as it’s over!” Throughout their single-sex East Coast boarding school years pre-World War II, over the course of world travels, and into adulthood they continue to write. Andy says, “I feel most alive when I’m holed up in some corner writing letters.” As his father used to tell him, letters allow you to present yourself in the best possible way, to make a gift of yourself to another person. Does that mean they’re inauthentic? Not necessarily, though they can be. One of the funniest letters in the show is the one Andy receives back after he has sent Melissa a schmaltzy, generic family Christmas letter. She hones in on inauthenticity a mile away, and to say she calls him on it would be an understatement.
We see personal joy and pain, triumphs and setbacks, all as the letter writers choose to narrate them. There are unanswered letters, too. Eventually, the correspondence picks up again after these spells of one-sidedness. But we’re left to read between the lines when either Melissa or Andy is purposely silent on a particular subject. The actors’ timing is excellent, both in the cases of letters met by silence and at other times when letters fly back and forth at a furious pace. Admirably, Welch and Orme manage to captivate the audience such that each successive letter is eagerly anticipated. Overall, Gurney’s narrative structure is well proportioned and aesthetically pleasing.
Simple as they are, the set and lighting of Love Letters deserve a few words. The minimal, modern-style table, chairs, lamp and rug (all available for sale at Scorpio Interiors, by the way, according to a note in the program) make the actors stand out on stage much as the lighting on them does. Ponder for a moment the symbolic implications of Melissa and Andy, separated geographically and corresponding through letters, nevertheless sitting at opposite ends of the same table, their identical glasses, it appears, filled from the same decanter… Equally clever is the change in lighting as the play approaches its end, which likewise underscores the subject matter most dramatically.
Alas, where does it all end? Love has compelled the ink to flow, but eventually, the ink ebbs and, I daresay, dries up. Does love, too? Or does it exist apart from the letters? It would be unfair to tell – you’ll have to make the acquaintance of Melissa and Andy yourself to find out. But consider this your letter of introduction.
Tim & Dair Mathistad
Katie & Chris Haulter
Kathy Todd Chaney
Angie Reed Garner