It’s quite the coincidence that the national tour of the Broadway revival of A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters” has arrived at Hartford’s Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts just in time for Valentine’s Day. Not to mention that it reunites the stars of perhaps one of the most popular love stories ever filmed, Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw, who are remembered still today for their leading roles back in 1970 in the appropriately titled “Love Story.”
As the pair walk on stage at the Bushnell, it is stunning to see them together, marked by age, yet recognizable as the once handsome Harvard golden boy and youthfully vibrant working class girl from Providence, Rhode Island. There’s an affection between the two leads, as they approach the large wooden table centered close to the lip of the stage and O’Neal pulls a wooden chair out for McGraw and then proceeds to sit next to her. It is the last time they will have any direct contact for the subsequent 90 minutes, as, per the stage directions in Gurney’s play, they read from a notebook the over 50-year correspondence between the two characters they are playing, Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner. This being a Gurney work, and one of his earlier plays from the beginning of the 1980’s, Andrew and Melissa are WASP’s, and fairly comfortable ones, although Melissa points out that her family is quite a bit more well off than Andrew’s.
The letters begin when the two meet in second grade and begin exchanging notes and cards and valentines, some rude in the way that only children can be to each other, others revealing the spark that will lead to a lifelong epistolary relationship. McGraw and O’Neal are quite endearing as they play with the taunts and challenges of the childrens’ letters and postcards, although the Bushnell’s sound system on opening night left a number in audience leaning forward trying to hear the words and scratching their heads over what they thought they had missed. Although both performers are miked, probably to reach the mezzanine and balcony levels as evidenced by some of the aural feedback that could be heard, the front of the orchestra section seemed neglected, until one was able to adjust one’s expectations and behavior to pay more careful attention to the each speaker. O’Neal remained the stronger, louder speaker throughout the evening, while McGraw would occasionally pitch her voice into an almost silent, gentle whisper, or turn her head in such a way that her body mike (I assumed the microphones were body mikes) could not pick up her words.
Gregory Mosher, who was responsible for last year’s Broadway revival that featured a rotating cast that included such luminaries as Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow, has rehearsed this cast well, cuing them on the inflections and delivery appropriate for the various letters as well as for their limited physical behavior involved in the composition. Occasionally, he will allow one or the other to smile or appear concerned in reaction to a letter they are supposedly reading, but at no time during the play do the actors look directly at each other or have any other type of interaction. After all, the reading of each letter is an intimately private and personal affair. Once in a while, O’Neal or McGraw will quickly respond, indicating that a letter was probably written almost immediately and eagerly after the previous one was received.
Both O’Neal and McGraw are quite believable as they follow their characters through boarding school, college and professional life, as Andrew’s deep affection and love for Melissa becomes clearer and clearer, while Melissa remains aloof, playful, flirtatious and at times punishing, as she tries to keep Andrew at a distance while enduring her own inner psychological struggles. O’Neal conveys Andrew’s earnestness as he struggles to maintain their friendship through their letters as they age, fall in love with others, get married, and endure troubles in their individual lives, while McGraw conveys Melissa’s emotional carelessness as she enters into relationships with not the best marriage prospects and tries to express herself artistically, with minimal success. O’Neal’s Makepeace follows his dream of becoming a successful lawyer and eventually politician, although the actor makes clear that Andrew’s progress is equally due to his own hard work and efforts in addition to his social standing.
Through it all, O’Neal maintains Andrew’s steadfast loyalty and concern for Melissa, as McGraw demonstrates how Melissa depends upon the notion of Andrew as a best friend and anchor, as she hurdles through an unexamined life that becomes increasingly lonelier and internalized as she gets older.
It was a pleasant surprise to revisit this Gurney play, as I had forgotten how rich and deep it was. At its premiere in the early 1980’s, and in subsequent productions, it is easy to overlook the quality of Gurney’s writing and characterizations because of the gimmick of having different casts perform the work each week. It would at times be natural to wonder how next week’s cast would handle the roles or wonder if each cast’s performance would be different as the week progressed. But the bottom line is that there is a substantial play here, rewarding, tragic and ultimately affirming.
“Love Letters” is also a reminder of that not-so-long ago period during which writing letters was the one of the few means of long-distance communication, particularly in an era when long distance telephoning could sometimes be quite expensive. Gurney, not knowing when he wrote the play that letters would soon become a lost art, rightly includes a variety of written communications, including lengthy heart-felt letters on individual stationery, Christmas cards, post cards and even formal invitations. O’Neal’s character is especially enamored of letter-writing, explaining that doing so allows him to consider and express his deepest feelings that perhaps he is a bit too shy to do in person or over the phone. McGraw’s Melissa, however, has little endurance for his lengthier tomes as well as a short attention span that makes her quickly tire over some of his subjects. Her more voluble character is naturally more at home in expressing her thoughts in the moment, with no filter and sometimes no forethought.
The pair have been nicely fitted in comfortably attractive outfits by Jane Greenwood that quickly convey their status, and Peter Kaczorowski has found a sturdy desk that conveys the stature of an old New England social strata. It seemed hard to believe that they performed a sound check before the curtain, and the audience’s occasional grumbling because of that was indeed an unwelcome distraction.
But for fans of “Love Story,” and there are plenty who retain fond memories of its somewhat hackneyed storyline and its startling juxtaposition against some of the more counter culture inspired films of that era, “Love Letters” is a way to call up the memories of the film and see how actually well the two stars have aged. The experience does bring home the reality of aging, particularly for those of us who at the time could easily identify with their characters in “Love Story,” as does Gurney’s plot in “Love Letters” as well.
“Love Letters” plays through Sunday, February 14 at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, with two shows on both Saturday and Sunday, and one on Friday evening, February 12. For information and tickets, call the Bushnell Box Office at 860.987.5900 or visit the theater’s website at www.bushnell.org.