Ashley Raymer-Brown & Craig Nolan Highley in Love Letters. Photo: Wayward Actors
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By A.R. Gurney
Directed by Katie Hay
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2022 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Since its premiere in 1988, A.R. Gurney’s epistolary exchange of a play has been performed innumerable times, very often as one-night fundraisers for various worthwhile causes by high-powered stars. It lends itself to such events because the format has the two actors actually reading the text, so that a production arguably requires less rehearsal.
For a two weekend run at The Bard’s Town, Wayward Actors Company has cast a few different combinations of actors, a common approach. Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III are friends since childhood, coming of age in well-to-do WASP families, dancing around the question of romance, maintaining a crucial long-distance friendship mostly through letters.
Born around 1930, the lives of the two characters peaks and fades before the cultural was transformed by email and cell phones. Andrew loves to write; Melissa complains frequently about it. Both are shipped to boarding schools but Andrew thrives in college, the Navy, law school, and politics while Melissa struggles to find her identity as an artist and cope with mental health issues.
Having viewed two performances with different sets of actors, it was fascinating how, even though the incidents of their lives don‘t change, the smallest choices could change how we read the characters. Ashley Raymer-Brown and Craig Nolan Highley were a stark contrast, she leaning into the darker emotional aspects of Mellisa couched within a veneer of sunny optimism while he gives Andrew a gruff discipline that contains the emotion until a late cathartic release.
The second night Nikki Heummann gave Melissa a terse, caustic edge that showed that people wear self-destructive personalities in different ways, while Marc McHone effectively connected with the audience with a crisp, professional reading punctuated by strategic and highly intentional gazes into the audience.
Although the format is for the actors to “read” the letters, that ability to reach out past the pages is crucial. Raymer-Brown and McHone achieve the most on that count, while Heumann uses carefully judged looks filled with sarcasm and pain and Highley almost never looks up from his pages, which underscores the stronger emotional passages by suggesting that we are eavesdropping. The glimpse into intimate grief and disapointment feels more impactful because it is secret.
The setting is simple but appropriate, an austere wooden table for Andrew and a comfortable padded chair for Melissa, set as far apart as the stage would allow.
Gurney’s play is constructed to allow such a range of interpretation, so I saw no right or wrong in the different approaches in these two casts – Jennifer Starr and Greg Collier alternate with Heumann and McHone in the second weekend – just different choices. Whether or not the nuance and complexity of a friendship lasting 50 years resonates with all audience members on a personal level, it is a good story well told in a fashion that reduces theatricality to the skill and invention of individual performances. That gives Love Letters a kind of purity to relish.
January 14, 15, 16, 21, 22, & 23 @ 7:30 pm
Wayward Actors Company
The Bard’s Town
1801 Bardstown Road
Louisville, KY 40205
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.