By Eileen Morrison Darren
A.R. Gurney’s play, “Love Letters,” currently in production at Douglaston Community Theatre under the direction of Ed Dzioba, is the story of a man and a woman whose correspondence and fascination with one another endure for a lifetime.
The production features a different set of actors in the roles of Andy Ladd and Melissa Gardner for each weekend of its run. At last weekend’s performance, Don Curran and Barbara Mavro played the roles in the presentational work. The players achieved much in their readings and maintained a nice sense of pace, which is critical in the performance of this play.
The action of the play consists solely of the characters, seated at desks, reading letters aloud to one another throughout the course of the evening. One might think that this dramatic device would limit the action, the scope, or the emotional life of the play. In fact, the convention serves up more drama, not less.
The format allows the audience to accompany Andy and Melissa through several decades as they marry other people, have children, and pursue divergent career paths (he’s a lawyer, she’s an artist). Over the course of the evening, audience members become more involved and listen more intently as the letters, and the years, go by.
Gurney tells us, through Andy, about his love for writing. “In some ways,” says Andy, “I feel most alive when I’m in some corner, writing. I feel like a true lover, when I’m writing to you — giving myself to you across a divide, giving this piece of myself. And you can keep it and read it as often as you want.”
The playwright also gives us a glimpse into the classism and prejudices of the WASP upper middle class of an earlier era. The slurs come trippingly off the tongues of both characters. Andy jokes that, of course, there are no Jews at his school, and “There are some Catholics, but you can’t be Catholic and smart at the same time.” Melissa tells him, “Only maids send Easter cards,” and, later in the play, “My psychiatrist said that men have to love dark-skinned girls before they love the blond goddesses they really want.”
Andy and Melissa meet for the first time in a second grade class at an exclusive private school. Andy and his “Lost Princess of Oz,” soon get into trouble for passing notes and peeking at one another in the bathhouse at school. Soon, the two are separated as they are sent off to single-sex boarding schools, and their long distance correspondence begins.
The responsible Andy relishes the written word and sends long fact-filled letters to Melissa about his school activities, while Melissa, who prefers to communicate through drawings, responds with short sarcastic notes about how much she hates everything and everyone at her school.
While both characters had been children of privilege, Andy had enjoyed the security that comes with a stable family life, and the guidance of a loving father. Melissa struggled through a childhood with an alcoholic mother, an absent father, and a succession of stepfathers, one of whom “bothered her in bed.”
Andy’s value system is based on a foundation of respect for authority and duty to “family, country, and self.” While Andy indulges vicariously in dangerous activities through Melissa, he pursues academic excellence and a career in law, culminating in a career in politics.
Melissa models her behavior on that of her mother. Although she becomes a successful artist, she is promiscuous and self-destructive. Like her mother, she will marry, divorce and fail her children. For the immature, insecure and impulsive Melissa, whose life is filled with excess, Andy provides some balance.
Timing is everything, and, for these two, the timing is never right. When Andy invites Melissa to visit him at Yale during their college years, she’s ends up going off with one of his friends. A second attempt ends when Andy fizzles in the bedroom. The next time Melissa is open to a relationship, Andy is involved with someone else, and so it goes until the two 50-somethings finally consummate their relationship with a torrid clandestine affair.
But the very married lawyer, turned judge, turned U.S. Senator is running for re-election, and Melissa has become a liability. Andy abruptly ends their relationship and Melissa loses her fragile hold on sanity, and takes her own life.
In the end, Andy writes “I don’t know how to survive without her.”