“It feels like we’ve come full circle,” states a character in A. R. Gurney’s play, “Love Letters,” about the stage of a long-term loving relationship, conducted mostly in letters. Gurney’s play itself has come full circle too. It had its world premiere at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre in 1988 and it returned there on Wednesday, March 30, in a splendid and moving revival directed by Long Wharf’s Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein.
Much of the credit for the evening’s success must go to the two stars of the production, the award-winning actors Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy, both who have appeared previously on the Long Wharf Stage, playing the roles of Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, who meet first in second grade and never stop writing to each other until the death of one some 50+ years later. This being a Gurney play, the two characters come from upper class, well-to-do WASP families from Connecticut and frequently reference schools, hospitals and other locations familiar to many in the audience.
It is interesting to encounter this production so soon after seeing a national tour of “Love Letters” that reunited the stars of the 70’s film “Love Story” in the roles of Melissa and Andy, Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal. That production played in the big bar of a theatre, the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts’ Mortenson Hall, and was sadly plagued with sound issues. The more intimate Claire Tow Stage at the Long Wharf is a much more appropriate venue for what many consider to be a slight play. As a result, not only can an audience hear the lines sufficiently, but there’s a closer connection to the characters.
Thanks to Edelstein, Farrow and Dennehy, this production demonstrates the genuine potential of the Gurney script and reveals that “Love Letters” is anything but a slight play. The two actors mine Gurney’s lines for subtle character development that adds a depth and resonance to the relationship that I had not picked up on before.
For those unfamiliar with “Love Letters,” Gurney’s conceit is that the play is meant to be read aloud by two actors who have been minimally rehearsed by a director. The two actors, although they walk in together and are seated at a long wooden table side by side, are not to look at each other during the play. Yes, they may react to a letter one has received as it is being read aloud by the sender, but there is no eye contact until essentially the very closing moments of the play.
Farrow’s Melissa experiences the most changes in the play which allows her to convey a broad range of emotions which she manages to do with an endearing aplomb. As she corresponds with Andy during their school years in greeting cards, thank you notes and post cards from vacation locales, Farrow adopts the playful tone of a pre-adolescent who can be snobby and snotty at times, growing into the teenaged Melissa who becomes adept at manipulating her young admirer, pulling him in at times, keeping him at a distance at others. Later Farrow deepens her portrait of Melissa as the character encounters thwarted success as an artist, becomes an unfulfilled wife and mother, and finds solace in drink and increasing despair. Her tragic arc feels genuinely palpable as Melissa reviews those expectations that have ultimately proved to be unrealistic as well as those behaviors with which she has jeopardized her happiness.
Dennehy is equally masterful as Andy, who is taken by this young blond girl the moment he lays eyes on her and who discovers in the process of keeping in touch with her that he has a knack for and actually enjoys writing long and detailed letters. While it is easier to accept Farrow as a child, Dennehy comes into his own as Andy grows up and enters the Navy, graduates from law school and clerks for a Supreme Court justice, joins a prestigious New York law firm and ultimately becomes a U.S. Senator from New York. Dennehy deftly shows how Andy matures into a robust statesman with a wife and three sons, while always maintaining a place in his heart for Melissa even over the periods in which they lose track of each other or, more decidedly, one chooses not to speak to the other for any number of reasons.
Toward the last section of the play, Farrow heartbreakingly captures Melissa’s increased desperation and neediness as Dennehy pushes back with a strict and emphatic opprobrium, in one of the few scenes in which the two correspondents talk over each other’s dialogue. This is a stunning, theatrically rewarding moment that represents the fulfillment of what Farrow and Dennehy, as well as director Edelstein, have brought to this production. Admittedly, the pair have had previous experience with “Love Letters,” having appeared for a short stint in director Gregory Mosher’s Broadway revival back in 2014, at which time Farrow’s performance was described as “searing” by the New York Times.
As Gurney requires, the simple set is composed of the wooden table, two chairs, and copies of the script, all situated atop a short platform. Long Wharf’s Assistant Properties Manager, who is credited with the set design, has added a row of long black pole lamps, slightly lighted, across the black back wall of the stage which contributes just the subtlest hint of faded elegance.
But it is the acting that attracts one to this production of “Love Letters” and in that category there is absolutely no disappointment. The evening represents a triumph of acting, direction and playwriting which attests to the enduring popularity and power of the play.
“Love Letters” has been scheduled for essentially a two-week run at Long Wharf, closing on Sunday, April 10. For tickets and information, call the Long Wharf Box Office at 203.787.4282 or visit their website at www.longwharf.org.