Brisbane Arts Theatre
February 3 – 14
A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters” is the heart-warming story of two people who share a lifetime of experiences through the now old-fashioned medium of handwritten letters. The epistolary work is a unique theatrical experience, not quite a play reading and not entirely a play, but very much an unforgettable event.
For those unfamiliar with the play, its premise is quite simple; two actors read their character’s letters to each other to the audience, and, in doing so, fill the gaps of time that pass, unspoken, between two lifelong friends, Andrew (Ray Swenson) and Melissa (Gloria Swenson). Through this lifetime of correspondence, the Pulitzer Prize finalist not only presents a bittersweet but compelling story, but explores the complexity of life, love and relationships.
It begins quaintly, but without over-sentimentality, with childhood birthday party thank-you notes and summer camp postcards and develops, despite budding artist Melissa’s preference for pictures over words, into letters. Although initially banal with childhood recount of mundane details, the resulting letters reveal much about their contrasting personalities, but also family dysfunction and parental expectations and as the two travel from passing notes in class to the boarding school times one would expect of those born to such East Coast American wealth and position, we are witness to their negotiation of adolescence and exploration of life’s dreams and disappointments.
As the actors read their letters aloud, the character studies take shape, creating an evocative, moving and frequently funny play that is very much of its intended time in attitudes indicated by throw-away lines. Without any physical interaction between characters, the play’s success relies significantly on is script, which is quite clever in its subtle foreshadowing and hint at the progression of time with changing content, tone and language. Clearly the two rely on each other, despite using the letters to present themselves as the person they want the other to see and as we head into intermission, we are left wondering if this will be enough.
Act Two takes us through the victories and vices of Melissa and Andy’s adult lives as overseas adventures, loss and other loves see them drift apart, while all the while remaining reliant of each other, even through their times of radio silence. As the couple traverse the milestones, melodramas and minutia of their real, everyday lives, their characters are more humanised with authentic feelings and flaws. And audience members experience every emotion along with them, such is the power of not just the script itself but the considered delivery of it.
The setup means the script is read as letters, enacted entirely from two separate desks and chairs. Indeed, it is the simplest of premises; in the words of the author, it “… needs no theatre, no lengthy rehearsal, no special set, no memorization of lines, and no commitment from its two actors beyond the night of performance”. Yet it is quite absorbing, especially in the intimacy of the Brisbane Arts Theatre. Adding to this appeal is the fact that the play is being presented (as is often the case) by a real-life couple, married for over 40 years, which adds an authentic beauty to lines about being the heart of each other’s lives.
Gloria Swenson is full of optimism and effervescent energy as the unbridled Melissa and her reactions while ‘reading’ and hearing letters alike not only emphasise their light-hearted digs and despairing revelations, but add another level to the evening’s entertainment. As her sensible diamond in the rough Andy, Ray Swenson has more to say given that his character loves writing so much. (“I feel like a true lover when I’m writing you. This letter, which I’m writing with my own hand, my own pen, in my own penmanship, comes from me and no one else, and is a present of myself to you”, he proclaims.) At times his latter delivery is a little fumbled, however, this is quickly recovered and lines are rarely lost. However, his, final, most eloquent letter, delivered almost as a monologue about how much they have meant and have given to each other over the years, packs such a powerful emotional punch that none of that really matters. Despite having seen a previous production of the show so going in fully aware of where the narrative was taking us, like many in the audience, I again exited the theatre with a face full of tears.
“Love Letters” is a simple, honest and honestly lovely piece of theatre. It will perhaps be an acquired taste for those who like their shows full of colour and movement, however, the charm of its exploration of both the beauty and tragedy of human experience is so poignantly real, that its touch will surely linger long for many members of its audience.