"Love Letters" Requires Patience

By Geary Danihy

Patience is a virtue, and it is also a requirement if you are going to fully enjoy A. R. Gurney’s “Love Letters,” which recently opened at Stratford’s Square One Theatre. This two-character play, which is one of the darlings of community and regional theaters, given the limited demands it places on budgets for props and scenery, is an unhurried exercise in character revelation that challenges the audience to stay attentive through most of a slow-build first act so that the second act can be fully appreciated.

Staying attentive is initially something of a challenge, for the story of Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (Pat Leo) and Melissa Gardner (Peggy Nelson) is told as the two sit side by side at a desk “reading” the letters they have sent to each other. Other than hand gestures and facial expressions, there is no physical movement and no interaction between the actors, including no eye contact, until the last moment of the play, and even that is subtle. Thus, the audience members’ eyes are locked in position for the entire play, and as any speaker or teacher worth his or her salt knows, this is an open invitation to nodding heads and drooping eyelids. Hence, the manner in which the actors deliver their lines -- pacing, intonation, modulation – is all they have to work with to create their characters and keep the audience’s attention. That they do so, and in the end quite movingly, is much to the credit of Leo and Nelson.

The attention problem is exacerbated by how Gurney has chosen to develop the play, opting for a leisurely pace more suitable to a novel than to theater. When you pick up a novel you expect it will take some time for you to be drawn in. Drama, since it has its captive audience for a much more limited time, must deal with exposition (i.e., the who, what, when and where of the play) more expeditiously. Gurney, acclaimed playwright that he is, knows this well, but he chose to risk a drifting audience. It turns out, in the end, to be a risk worth taking.

What might have helped the first act a bit, and given the actors more to work with, is if director Tom Holehan had pushed for a more childlike, playful delivery of the first series of “letters” and schoolroom notes, which the two characters wrote to each other in grade school. A little bit of exuberant chair-wiggling (the lines are delivered as if a will is being read) would have gone a long way to frame the scenes, but in the opening minutes of the play there’s little sense of who these people are and what stage of life they are in.

However, as the two characters “mature,” this problem falls away. The first act ends with the two having recently graduated from college and wondering if their voyage into a larger world will mean an end to their epistolary relationship. It doesn’t, of course, and the subtle yet positive effects of the first act inherent in the risk Gurney has taken become manifest as the second act opens and you have the feeling that you are back in the presence of old friends, eager to hear what will happen to them.

A lot does. A promising artist, Melissa’s marriage and life soon begin to unravel, the loosening accelerated by alcohol, while Andrew gets a law degree, clerks for a Supreme Court justice and eventually is elected to the United States Senate. Yet they remain friends, sending letters back and forth that tease, cajole, hurt, appease and apologize. In essence, they become each other’s conscience, growing closer over the years, often through antagonism, until they eventually find brief happiness in each other’s arms. 

It is in these final scenes of love fulfilled and lives challenged that Leo and Nelson, and Holehan’s low-key yet persuasive direction, truly shine. The audience is now fully engaged with these characters – it seems we’ve known them all of our lives. Thus, the end of their relationship is more moving than one would have expected a mere 80 or so minutes before. Gurney has taken his time setting his hook – perhaps a bit too much time – but the “fish” is finally caught and landed.

There’s work to be done if you are going to enjoy “Love Letters,” but as everyone knows, all good relationships demand a lot of hard work, but the rewards are there. You just have to be patient.

“Love Letters” runs through Saturday, Feb. 20. For tickets or more information call 203 375-8778 or go to www.squareonetheatre.com

This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.

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