A lot can happen in 50 years. No one knows this better than the characters of Love Letters, who have come to the realization throughout the unfolding of their tumultuous and complicated relationship.
Penned by A.R. Gurney and first performed in 1988, Love Letters was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1990 and has seen productions across the country-both on and off Broadway-and now has come to our very own Grand Theatre for a special one-night-only Valentine’s showing on Feb. 13.
Starring Holly Mullen as Melissa Gardner and Ted Wilson as Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (yeah, that’s right), Love Letters chronicles the story of the two characters’ lives and relationship from second grade to middle age, all in the form of letters written back and forth over a 50 year period. Along the way, they are assailed by the gamut of human experience, from puberty to college, marriage to divorce, children, adultery, substance abuse, grand hopes, shattered dreams, and overwhelming tragedy in more ways than one.
Throughout it all, the characters are contrasted both in terms of temperament and practical achievements. Andrew is in many ways the all-American man: stable, a lawyer-turned-Senator, a family man. Melissa, on the other hand, is a bullet train constantly threatening to jump the tracks, a troubled soul searching for success and acceptance in a world full of storm clouds. Somewhere in the middle they find a common ground that keeps them, to varying degrees, in each other’s lives and in each other’s minds.
It’s worth noting that this may not be a play in the manner that you would normally think of it. It makes no use of elaborate sets, trap doors, or strobe lighting. Instead, the entire production consists of little more than two desks, two chairs, two actors, and the titular letters. Nevertheless, it is an engaging experience due largely to Gurney’s clever and amusing script, which conjures up the impression of a David Sedaris story stamped with the sensibilities of middle age.
Mullen steals the show as Melissa and you walk away feeling as if it’s ultimately her story that takes center stage. This is due partially to the fact that Gurney has put his best lines into Melissa’s mouth and it’s her character that pushes the pace of the storyline, but Mullen herself gives a performance that is more dynamic, and more nuanced, than her co-star. She does everything she can to breathe life into a role that requires her to do little more than read to the audience, and her facial expressions, vocal quality, and overall attention to detail make her hard to take your eyes off of. To be fair, Wilson does a solid job as Andrew, but his expression of the character is more workmanlike, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that he is simply there to support Mullen, as Melissa’s life pops, fizzles, and spins out of control.
Love Letters is an acquired taste-one that you acquire within the first 15 or 20 minutes after the first line is spoken. The initial feeling is one of Is this really it? They’re seriously going to sit there and read to each other for two hours? But once you’ve gotten over your initial reservations you’re surprised at how engrossing the whole thing is. Andrew’s and Melissa’s lives unfold in a way that both entertains and provokes thought, and the core elements of the human experience are examined in a way that keeps you thinking long after you’ve left the theatre. A true Valentine’s treat.