‘Letters’ brims with epistolary emotion

Even after College Council’s recent installment of new lighting in Paresky auditorium, very few student groups have taken advantage of this intimate yet versatile space. Immediate Theatre, a group that prides itself on using unique venues on campus, decided to utilize Paresky auditorium this weekend for the presentation of Love Letters, a play written by A.R. Gurney. I was not really sure what to expect with this show, but Jimmy Grzelak ’13 and Sara Harris ’12 were very smart in their choice of performance space. Despite the small crowd, the up-close-and-personal setting of the auditorium worked perfectly with the type of show they put on. While Love Letters was not your typical run-of-the-mill theater experience, Grzelak and Harris’s expressive readings augmented its limited set and stationary characters.

The performance began with two chairs and a table on set. Harris as Melissa and Grzelak as Andy took the stage and sat down with only a couple of papers, or “letters,” as props. The dialogue of the show was contained within the letters sent by these two individuals over their entire lives, from the age of about six to 60. The first letter sent was a thank-you note from Andy to Melissa’s mother for inviting him to Melissa’s birthday party. From there, the letters follow the two friends as they deal with the trials and tribulations of complicated family life, schools and relationships.

Melissa’s family is wealthy but dysfunctional – Melissa’s mother is an alcoholic – and Andy comes from what sounds like a normal working-class family. The tone of the letters slowly matured as the people writing them grew into their teenage years.  Melissa’s rebellious nature would often clash with Andy’s tendencies to follow the rules set by his parents, but the two used letter writing to keep in touch even after they were both sent off to separate boarding schools. While the two actors never moved from their seats at the table, they were both incredibly successful in conveying the feeling and emotion of the letters that they were reading through their inflection and facial expression alone.

While as an audience we had no narrator indicating the passage of time or events happening outside of the letters, many incidences of attempted meetings and dates were alluded to throughout the show. None of these face-to-face encounters ever seemed to work and the sexual tension between the two friends never really resolved itself. Melissa was expelled from her school and began to experiment in sexual promiscuity while Andy played rugby and received good grades. Andy eventually attended Yale and tried to have Melissa come to stay one weekend, but once in the hotel room his nerves got the best of him and the two were left with a situation even more awkward than before. However, even as their physical relationship left much to be desired, their epistle relationship flourished. The letters were what kept them connected, and Andy’s passion for writing and Melissa’s biting wit made both writers engaging to listen to. In Andy’s words, “letters are a way of presenting yourself in the very best light possible to another person.”

We watched as Andy joined the Navy and Melissa went to Italy to study art. While they had trouble making time for each other in person, their letters never ceased. However, my hopes that they would eventually end up together were squashed when both characters finally came back to the States and settled down with other people. Andy became a politician and well-off suburban dad while Melissa slipped into alcoholism and lost her two little girls to her ex-husband. Their conversations were whittled down to annual Christmas cards, and Andy’s lack of time for Melissa’s slow demise was painful to listen to.

It was only during this phase of their lives as adults that the sexual relationship between the two was finally given a small window of opportunity. The affair between the two obviously released nearly 50 years of tension, but it was as short-lived as it was passionate and Andy’s political and familial obligations soon stood in their way. Melissa passed in and out of various stages of alcoholism and recovery, and it wasn’t long before her life seemed irrecoverable.

Harris’ portrayal of Melissa’s downward spiral was amazingly compelling for basically doing a mere reading. Grzelak was also impressive in showing Andy’s conflict of interests in the written passion he had with Melissa and the real life he had with his family and career. It was not until Melissa’s death that he was finally able to admit to her mother in one last letter that it was Melissa whom he loved, and that he always had. The play ended with the only words in the play not read from a letter, the words of Melissa listening in on Andy’s letter from above, saying thank you.