Ah, Sweet Mystery of Love

By Geary Danihy

The power of words.

Two actors sit at a table on a dimly lit stage and read letters that their characters have sent to each other over the years. They face forward. They do not interact, much less touch each other. Sounds like a recipe for a boring evening, right? Wrong.

Love Letters, by A. R. Gurney, which recently opened at Long Wharf Theatre, is a magical evening that is a tribute to the playwright and the two fine actors, Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy, who easily have the audience in thrall for the full 90 minutes of the show.

As directed by Gordon Edelstein, this bittersweet paean to letter writing and to a friendship that stands the test of time speaks to both the mind and the heart. The two characters, Andrew (Dennehy) and Melissa (Farrow), first meet each other in second grade, when they begin to pass notes to each other. The correspondence continues as the two characters mature, moving through the awkward stages of teen-dom, when both are sent to private schools, and then on to college and to life, with Melissa becoming an artist and Andrew going into law and then politics.

Their personalities are antithetical -- Melissa is a free spirit, Andrew a somewhat repressed acolyte of the status quo -- and yet they find in each other a synthesis that, though troubled over the years, is soul-satisfying.

Given his character, Dennehy is somewhat restrained through the first half of the evening, but Farrow is constantly moving in her chair: her feet turn in on each other in girlish insecurity, she plays with her hair nervously, and she pouts magnificently.

The beauty of this piece, from a theater’s point of view, is that its staging requires little more than a table, two chairs, and lighting sufficient for the audience to see the actors. There’s no set, no costume changes, no special effects or projections required.

From an actor’s point of view, however, it’s a challenge, for there are obvious restraints, the main one being that they are restricted to their chairs. Secondly, they cannot interact except vocally. Thus, they must bring their characters to life primarily through their voices and what limited body language they are allowed.

The intriguing thing about this play, given its restrictions, and this is much to Gurney’s credit, is that there is a very definite, old-fashioned dramatic arc to its construction: exposition (who these characters are), several waves of rising action (their on-again, off-again relationship through high school, college and into their separate married lives) culminating in a climax (they finally consummate their relationship), followed by a moving denouement (the passing of one of the characters).

Does it work? Yes. During the curtain call, I looked down to the row in front of me and saw a young lady, perhaps 16 years old, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, wiping tears from her eyes. As I exited, several patrons were also brushing at their cheeks.

One of the reasons it works is that there is something atavistic about this play -- it evokes the mesmerizing quality of the storyteller, the shaman-like person who would sit in front of a fire and tell stories about the tribe, reminding those listening who they are and where they have come from. Andrew and Melissa’s story is of that nature, for it can’t help but evoke memories of first love, of thwarted love, of love that defies rationality. It calls up in each one of us moments of delight, of heartbreak, of loss, and the soft glow engendered by having shared a life, if only, primarily, through letters, with someone. Hence, the tears.

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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