In recent years, this area has been blessed with productions of works by A.R. Gurney, notably: The Dining Room and Scenes from American Life. Under the direction of Rebecca Blum, Bare Theatre’s production of Gurney’s Love Letters at Sonorous Road Productions in Raleigh joins them as a blessing to the local stage. The show is interesting, captivating, and compelling, which is amazing, because it consists of two actors who sit on the stage, never making eye contact and never moving from their chairs.
This begs the question: Why were we so interested, captivated, and compelled? The short answer is this: the script, the acting, and the directorial choices work together to invite us to insert ourselves comfortably into the characters’ lives as fly-on-the-wall observers.
We get the story of the relationship between Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (Andy), children of upper-class New England families. (Melissa’s family is the wealthier of the two.) The story begins in 1937, when they are in second grade; and it spans nearly 50 years. We hear their story as the characters read letters and notes that they have sent each other, and we hear the voice of the writer, just like the recipient would mentally hear it while reading. Sometimes, they read excerpts from actual letters, sometimes notes that they passed each other while in class, sometimes postcards, and sometimes greeting cards.
On one occasion, we are “treated” to the annual family “Christmas Letter,” written on this occasion by Andy, mass-produced, and sent out by Andy’s family. For 90 minutes, we hear the communications between two people who care for each other very deeply, but never have the opportunity to allow a “normal relationship” to blossom. Their lives are somewhat “out of sync” — in their own way, they are “star-cross’d lovers.”
From the onset, we can spot differences between the characters. Melissa sits in a living room chair. She kicks off her shoes and comfortably curls her legs up underneath her. Andy, on the other hand, assumes a more formal writing posture, sitting at a desk.
Andy writes in a more formal style, always using complete sentences. Melissa’s style is more relaxed. She includes sentence fragments and sometimes mentions that she is inserting a drawing.
On multiple occasions, Melissa expresses a disdain for letter-writing as a means of communication. (Indeed, at crucial points in their story, we learn that the telephone has triumphed over the written word.) Andy, however, at one point, tells Melissa: “I feel most alive while writing … anything where I have to put down words.”
Andy’s life unfolds in a more structured, by-the-book fashion. Melissa’s is more free-spirited. She takes more risks and suffers more consequences.
A side note: We found ourselves wondering whether or not Andy is intended as an avatar of the playwright. As a result, we wondered if any of this is autobiographical.
Director Rebecca Blum made a very interesting (and bold) choice, and she contacted the playwright to get permission to do so. Even though Gurney’s script calls for two actors (one to play each character), Blum uses a series three actors (a Young, a Middle, and an Adult) for each character.
At crucial points in the characters’ lives, there is a “changing of the guard” as the next actor moves in to replace the departing actor. There is a bit of an overlap as the older of the two actors briefly observes his/her younger self, almost as though he/she were remembering and reflecting on that crucial point in the past. Major kudos! This device enhances our appreciation of the story as we are invited to share an additional dimension of the characters’ consciousness.
Part of the joy of Love Letters is in watching each of the characters react as the other speaks, and Blum’s choice to use a succession of actors augments this. As Young Melissa and Young Andy, Audrey Jones and Damien Tomczyk accurately portray the characters’ thoughts and feelings in the earlier stages of their friendship. We see an innocence and a curiosity as well as a set of expectations for each of them.
Claire Koenig and Justin Brent Johnson show the fits and starts of the characters’ “Middle” years, as they navigate the dynamics of life in their teens while at separate boarding schools and universities. Koenig’s facial expressions are priceless, as her character reacts to letters from Andy, rolling her eyes here, sticking out her tongue there. Johnson, likewise, imbues his character with appropriate facial expressions, mostly as Andy deals with disappointments and frustrated expectations during these years of his life.
Amanda Sherle and Simon Kaplan play the adults. Through their reactions, we ride with them on their roller-coaster reactions to these letters as well. Melissa and Andy have to deal with such issues as news that the other is in a romantic relationship and then married.
Things become very intense ….
As the moods change, subtle changes in lighting (designed by Brett Stegall) take place to enhance the feeling. At various times, we become aware of music fading in and out in the background. Sound designer G. Todd Buker‘s choices help define the setting, the activity, and the mood of the action being narrated at that point. The music is expertly engineered. It is never overwhelming, and it never “overstays its welcome.”
The Department of Picky-Picky demands that we salute the specific choice of Andy’s desk. It looks just like what we would expect to find in a private school in 1937.
This show in this venue with this cast, crew, and director is a must-see. It was a perfect choice for the weekends surrounding Valentine’s Day. Saturday night’s performance was well-attended. We hope the remainder of the run will play to full houses.
SECOND OPINION: Feb. 12th Raleigh, NC CVNC preview: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=7788.
Bare Theatre presents LOVE LETTERS at 8 p.m. Feb. 19 and 20, 2 p.m. Feb. 21, 8 p.m. Feb. 26 and 27, and 2 p.m. Feb. 28 at Sonorous Road Productions, 209 Oberlin Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27605.
TICKETS: $19.62 including fees ($11.34 students and educators and $16.52 seniors and active-duty military personnel, including fees).
BOX OFFICE: 919-322-8819 or http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2489821.
SHOW: http://baretheatre.org/love-letters/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/1525869327741122/.
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJ2tVe15c9E.
PRESENTER: http://baretheatre.org/, https://www.facebook.com/BareTheatre, https://twitter.com/baretheatre, and https://www.youtube.com/user/TheBareTheatre.
VENUE: http://www.sonorousroad.com/, https://www.facebook.com/sonorousroad, and https://twitter.com/sonorousroad.
Love Letters (1988 New York Public Library, 1989 Off-Broadway, 1989 Broadway play): http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=996 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), http://www.argurney.com/small_casts.html#loveletters (official web page), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/1202 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://www.ibdb.com/Show/View/5590 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0171492/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_Letters_%28play%29 (Wikipedia).
The Script: https://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
A.R. Gurney (New York City playwright and screenwriter): http://www.argurney.com/ (official website), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/627 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://www.ibdb.com/Person/View/84220 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0348672/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A._R._Gurney (Wikipedia).
Rebecca Blum (Raleigh director): https://www.facebook.com/rebecca.blum1 (Facebook page).
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.