It started with an obligatory thank-you note. Young Andy had been invited to the birthday party of a schoolmates, Melissa. It was the beginning of a lifelong correspondence, friendship, and a love that rarely had a life off the handwritten pages, but was very much real.
I first saw LOVE LETTERS just last November, when it was performed at Delaware Theatre Company by Delaware Governor and First Lady Jack and Carla Markell as a fundraiser. It was a memorable evening that did the A.R. Gurney play justice. It was hardly a surprise that DTC Executive Director Bud Martin decided to have LOVE LETTERS open the 2014-15 season, this time with Emmy-winning actress Michael Learned as Melissa. Originally, Ralph Waite, Learned’s co-star from “The Waltons,” was cast as Andy, but, sadly, he passed away on February 13. The role of Andy then went to another famed actor and friend of Learned’s, Daniel Davis (you might remember him from his TV work as Professor Moriarty in “Star Trek, The Next Generation,” or as Niles on “The Nanny”).
This is Learned’s second time on the DTC stage. A couple of seasons ago, she starred in THE OUTGOING TIDE, one of Martin’s first productions to feature “name” actors from Broadway and television.
Chemistry is key with this play. It’s a love story, but you never see the actors interact directly. Instead, they sit at tables several feet apart (the real distance is often thousands of miles), reading the letters they exchange over the course of 50 years. As one reads, the other recites the words. There is no blocking, no memories are acted out — it’s all letters. And the pictures they paint are vivid.
Melissa and Andy aren’t necessarily the most relatable people at first glance. They come from uncommon wealth and privilege, attend elite boarding schools, live lives free of financial concerns. Their problems, especially Melissa’s (Andy doesn’t easily admit to having problems unless Melissa calls him out, such as when she gives him the biggest long-distance eyeroll ever after receiving his family’s Christmas newsletter), are real, though, and they ultimately do become relatable.
Their lives take dramatically different paths: Melissa studies art in Italy and jet sets around the world. Andy joins the Navy and goes into law, before becoming a Senator. Their lives never quite align. He falls in love with a Japanese woman while stationed overseas (scandalous for the time, which spans the mid-20th Century). Jealous, she decides to marry a man she’s less than passionate about. His relationship ends, no details offered. She gets a divorce. Her excitement at seeing him after the subject is tempered by the introduction of his new girlfriend, who becomes his wife. Andy’s life ascends. Melissa’s descends. At times they meet in the middle.
Learned and Davis take you through the journey, from childhood to middle age, playing (and capturing) each moment in their lives convincingly. These letters represent just a few moments in their lives, and sometimes are no more than birthday or holiday wishes, but together they tell a compelling story. The performances bring the story to life without the actors leaving their chairs. It’s sweet and funny and sad.
LOVE LETTERS runs for just three weeks, through October 5. Catch it if you can.
Written by A.R. Gurney
Directed by Bud Martin
September 17 – October 5, 2014
Delaware Theatre Company
200 Water Street
Wilmington, DE 19801