"LOve Letters" by A. R. Gurney

By Brooks Appelbaum -- Special to the Shoreline Times

If you have not seen A. R. Gurney’s “Love Letters,” and the playwright’s name brings to mind such gentle, genial charmers as “The Dining Room” and “Sylvia,” the Long Wharf Theater’s production, directed by Gordon Edelstein and running through April 10, is required viewing. If you have seen “Love Letters” in another venue, this production will likely be a revelation. Along with the incomparable Mia Farrow as Melissa Gardner and the fine Brian Dennehy as Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, Edelstein has brought out every nuance of this moving and profound script.

The premise of “Love Letters” couldn’t be simpler -- on the surface, that is. Two school children, Andy and Melissa, meet at Melissa’s birthday party and begin exchanging letters, a correspondence that continues throughout their lives. Melissa comes from an enormously wealthy but painfully fractured family, and Andy hails from solid, loving comfortably off parents who have very definite ideas about success, both personal and professional. Melissa watches her mother drink to excess and struggles to find her own place as a painter and independent woman; Andy lives out his father’s edict that his obligations are to his family, his country, and himself, “in roughly that order.”

The play is set in Gurney’s familiar social and geographical world, with references, among others, to a procession of nearby boarding schools; New Haven (Yale); and Long Island (Briarcliff). But once Melissa and Andy move beyond adolescence, the tone shifts into a vividly emotional whirlwind that is intense, bittersweet, and surprising.

“Love Letters” is also a paean to the written word, and Gurney cleverly makes his own love of writing a large part of Melissa and Andy’s conflict. Melissa continually resists “these goddamn LETTERS,” and tries to persuade Andy that telephones, or, better, face-to-face visits, are far superior. Andy, though, counters with his devotion to the page. “As I told you before,” he writes to Melissa, “in some ways I feel most alive when I’m holed up in a corner, writing things down.” As he continues to defend his love of writing, one hears the echo of a playwright in the making (although Melissa is the artist here). It is to Gurney’s credit that the echo remains soft, and that we believe Andy himself needs to write in order to express the ideal person he strives so hard to be.

The physical structure of “Love Letters” continues this commitment to the “lost art” of letter writing. Gurney instructs that two actors should sit side by side at a table, reading their letters (nothing in the play is memorized, and this is to make a point), and not looking at one another.¬†Under Edelstein’s direction, these specifications are perfectly observed, but his attention to detail elevates the production beautifully.

The elegantly simple set (Frank J. Alberino) consists of a rich oriental rug, an old-fashioned table, and two matching chairs. All else is darkness, other than a string of tiny, star-like lights set halfway up the black back wall. These lights, designed by Elisabeth Vella, subtly suggest both the grand world in which Melissa and Andy grew up and the boundaries of their lives.

Naturally, though, the real stars -- in every sense of the term -- are Ms. Farrow and Mr. Dennehy. Despite these actors’ magnitude, they instantly and for the whole evening disappear into Melissa Gardner and Andy Ladd III.¬†Both must age from childhood to late middle age using only their seated bodies, their hands, their facial expressions, and their voices, and their performances are astonishing.

Mr. Dennehy, as the solid Andy, keeps still for the most part, thus making the occasional move that much more telling. Ms. Farrow, in the more colorful role, curls her feet under the table to express childhood or distress; flutters her delicate hands; rakes her long blond hair; and makes remarkable use of her simple open cardigan (designed by Mary Readinger), to tell Andy -- and us -- exactly what she is feeling.

This version of “Love Letters” is not to be missed. No matter how familiar you are with Gurney or this play, this production will strike you as fresh, heartfelt, and deeply moving.

“Love Letters” runs through April 10. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.

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