Love Letters, by A. R. Gurney. Directed by Julianne Boyd. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Mark H. Dold and Debra Jo Rupp; photo: Elizabeth Nelson
"No. No. Yes. Yes. No."
Mark H. Dold: photo: supplied
With those five words, on a postcard, a very youthful Melissa Gardner responds to questions in a letter from equally young Andrew Makepeace Ladd III. Hearing her response we, in the unknown abyss of audience space, hope that he remembers what his questions were and in what order he had placed them. Melissa is a reluctant correspondent hating to waste the time it takes to write to somone. Andy is a prolific author of missives, especially the ones directed to this girl who is both elusive and seductive. The total sum of their written correspondence amassed over fifty years is their love story. It is a story of mistakes in judgement, errors and sins of omission, long-term commitment to a friendship that has romantic possibilities and a tribute to the whims of fate, a fate that manages to keep them at arms length through most of their lives during which their devotion to one another is almost never questioned.
Since 1988 there has almost always been a production of this play somewhere. Professional presentation and every other sort abound in the annals of theater. There have been one performance editions used as fund-raisers. There have been limited runs in which the two stars of the show change every few days. The playwright, A. R. Gurney, has stipulated that limited rehearsals are called for and that the script should always be read. It is a play that seems easy and yet, as Barrington Stage Company's current production on the St. Germain Stage proves, it is best when the two actors clearly understand their characters and can bring them to scintillating life in the 70 or so minutes it takes to complete their journey.
Mark H. Dold plays WASP progenitor Andrew (Andy) Makespeace Ladd III into a tortured but loveable soul. A "main-liner" whose family doesn't have the money that his contemporaries have, who achieves most of his goals, lives a life full of incident and full of success and yet never quite manages to fulfill the obligations of relationship that keep him on tenterhooks, he is genuinely moving when he faces the challenge of Melissa Gardner. In love with her since the second grade it is a love that cannot speak its name out loud in public. His is the greater challenge: how to bring this girl, this woman, into his personal thrall.
Dold pronounces with precision and clarity every one of Andy's thoughts. He imbues the simplest sentence with a romantic appeal that, were these letters heard by Melissa in his own voice rather than merely read, would bring her more immediately into his sphere. Understand that Dold and his co-star Debra Jo Rupp sit side-by-side at a partner's desk and never touch even once during the evening. Andy is in love with her and through all of his life and other relationships she is the one constant in his mind and heart. The sadness in the play is her lack of appreciation of this fact. Dold makes it even more poignant when he glances over at her with a face so controlled and expressionless. It is his eyes and the corners of his mouth that betray that calm and show us that his words are not simply words, they are love.
Melissa, as portrayed by Debra Jo Rupp, is a much cooler individual. Her family has more money than the Ladds possess. Her family is more troubled; her parents divorce, her mother drinks, her father has a second family that doesn't accept her. She is talented, an artist whose work brings her much visibility but who favors her own childish drawings that she has sent to Andy in response to some of his letters. Her marriage fails, her children abandon her. She is never truly in control of her life and the world around though she often thinks she is absolutely positively on top of things.
Rupp has a way with words that is often chilling. Her notes say things that are both sincere and fatuous and she presents both aspects with complete self-assuredness. There is never a false sense to her words. She is in control of them though almost never in control of what's behind them. Most of the laughs in this play belong to her and to her manner of speaking. When there are large gestures, they are mostly hers. She is the Holly Golightly of "Love Letters," a creature who transcends reality while remaining absolutely true to her destiny. The dichotomy of character here is something that an actress like Rupp can make honest and real through her use of simple things, turning a page in her script for instance, which often brings a definitive closure to her moments.
On a simple set with subtle lighting designed by Lucas Pawelski, director Julianne Boyd has guided her perfect cast into their roles with delicate precision. How much of what the audience sees and hears is due to her influence is hard to say, but the play brings us through amusement and romance to tragedy more than once and a strong guiding hand, an interested ear and a sense of timing has clearly been applied by the director.
Altogether there cannot be a more perfect hour or so in a theater-lovers life than the one offered here and now. Two idealized characters in the hands of two ideal interpretors makes for one idyllic view of the human condition.
Debra Jo Rupp; photo supplied
Love Letters plays through October 2 on the St. Germain Stage at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, 36 Linden Street, Pittsfield, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-236-8888 or go on line to www.barringtonstageco.org.