‘Letters’: something to write home about

Cap and Bells offered an alternative to obsessing over one’s possession of or lack of a significant other on Valentine’s Day evening in Spencer Living Room. “Love Letters” examined the intersections between romantic love and friendship over the course of a life-long correspondence. The play was written by alumnus A.R. Gurney ’52, who has also written such plays as “The Dining Room” and “The Cocktail Hour.”

Directed by Diane Williams ’02 and performed by William S. Allen II ’02 and Dana Lea Nelson ’02, the show was presented as a staged reading, as per Gurney’s specific instructions in the text. Allen and Nelson sat with scripts in their laps and read their parts without staging. The focus was on the voices of the characters and Gurney’s story. It is amazing to note how effectively the characters and images in their lives were developed in this simplified manner, both due to Gurney’s evocative text and Allen and Nelson’s delivery. The actors didn’t pretend to be “writing” their letters as they read or “reading” the other’s letters as they heard their words.

To its benefit, the production was not this specific. However, the emotional reactions of the characters to the letters of the other added interest at times, and this element might have been developed.

Gurney wrote Love Letters in 1989 at the age of 59. The play takes an expansive look at the lives of the two main characters from the ages of about 5 to 50, and Gurney has clearly drawn many elements of his male character, Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, from his own life. Both attended boarding schools and prestigious colleges, and then served in the Navy briefly during the Korean War. However, at this point their life-paths diverge: Andrew goes on to law school, law practice, politics and eventually the U.S. Senate, while Gurney received his master’s from Yale School of Drama, wrote plays and musicals, and taught at MIT until 1996.

His female character, Melissa Gardner, grows up from an affluent but dysfunctional family and becomes a struggling artist as well as a struggling human (dealing with depression, alcoholism, the separation and perpetual remarriages of her parents, and later her ex-husband’s custody of her two daughters).

The play begins with playful childhood notes between Andrew and Melissa. The story chronicles their friendship and flirtation through childhood, their separation and jealousies through their boarding school years and their continued contact as both characters experience all of life’s miracles and tragedies including birth, marriage, lost loves, failed plans and death.

The play culminates in a brief affair between Andrew and Melissa, which causes a scandal for Andrew, at that time a senator of New York. Throughout these events, Andrew, a focused and driven do-gooder, emphasizes his love of letter-writing above all other forms of communication. He explains early on that only through letters can one presents one’s self in the best light. This proves problematic when the characters in person find that they can not live up to the versions of themselves that have been cultivated in writing.

Melissa repeatedly opposes communicating by letter, endorsing the use of the telephone, but somehow she unfailingly replies. However, her opposition to the form is evident in her terse and emotional writing style as opposed to Andrew’s flowery and reflective tone.

Their correspondence alternates between a back-and-forth conversational style and a filtered, monosyllabic form. It is in the latter that the tension between presence and absence – a major theme of this play – manifests itself. When writing a letter, an audience is pre-supposed. However, when a writer doesn’t receive a reply, how is he to know that he isn’t writing into a void? This question recurs in the characters’ chronic fear that their letters are not being received.

As Andy Ladd, Allen was an extremely solid actor, especially effective in communicating the character’s youthful, clean-cut side. However, more change in the character’s speech style could have helped to differentiate his childhood with his adulthood. Nelson presented the more engaging performance, wonderfully expressing all the extremes inherent in the emotional and sensitive Melissa.

Perhaps the most beautiful moments of the play were in Melissa’s silences, when she, for one reason or another, did not reply to Andrew’s last letter. The first of these pauses was so unexpected that it plunged the room from laughter into total silence. In this silence, the eyes of the audience fixed on Nelson who was staring ahead in fear. The passage of weeks was accomplished in mere moments.

In general, the actors’ need to look down into their laps to read the scripts hurt the production dramatically. Music stands can be cumbersome, but they bring the actor’s face and eyes up; they need to be read by the audience in the same way that the text is read by the actors. In this case, the inability to see the eyes of the actors was more distracting. Gurney chose to make his play a staged reading, implying that the presence of the characters should be made palpable through the eyes of the actors. If he had intended the play for voice alone, he would have written it for radio.

The manipulative “tear-jerker” ending, as Andrew tearfully recounts his lifelong friendship with Melissa to Melissa’s mother in a last letter, is one criticism inherent to the play, possibly also to the production. Melissa calls out to him to be strong, supposedly from beyond the grave. This ending, reminiscent of Rogers and Hammerstein’s finale to Carousel (in the musical number “You’ll Never Walk Alone”), veered into sentimentality after the story’s thematic complexity had prepared the audience for a more complicated resolution – even for Valentine’s Day.

Qualms aside, director Williams has staged a success with Love Letters. Her decision to present the text simply and focus on the voices of the characters was effective and provided an entertaining diversion and an interesting contemplation on the nature of correspondence.

The play even helped build some school spirit. When discussing rival love interests from other colleges, Andy Ladd – at this point clearly Gurney’s mouthpiece – writes, “Dear Melissa: Amherst sucks!”

“Love Letters” was produced by Cap and Bells and was also presented in Spencer Library on Friday, Feb. 8 and in Bascom Living Room on Saturday, Feb. 9, both times to full audiences.