Mates Theatre Genesis and the Redlands Museum brings to stage A.R. Gurney’s Pulitzer Prize nominated work Love Letters. A wonderful exploration of humanity and relationship through the letters written by ‘Andrew’ and ‘Melissa’ over the course of their lives. The letters cover three periods of their life; the school years, college and the war years, and in the third act the later, final years of their friendship and romance.
For the uninitiated, the premise of the play is quite simple; originally written for two actors, each one reading their own letters to the audience. Each corresponding letter fills the void between the weeks, months, and sometimes years that pass unspoken between the pair. Each one a seething mass of subtext, unspoken and unacknowledged truths, hilarious biting asides (the type that only come from a lifetime of knowing someone), and deeply heartbreaking revelations.
The emotional power of the text alone is enough to haul the audience along on a roller coaster ride, whether they wish to go or not. It is in many ways a user proof play, it can be read from the page so no lines need to be learned, it is enacted entirely from two chairs, and for all of its subtext and subtlety there is enough power in the language that even the most novice of users could hold their own. This makes it a perfect choice for community theatre, and it is surprising that it is not done more often.
A challenge for any director then to seek something new and challenging from the work, Chad Sherrin’s vision dug deep and gave us so much more. Featuring an expanded cast of six, three sets of actors playing the roles, Sherrin gave us a glimpse into the unexplored everyman aspect of the play. It rang true that these people could be any of us, and the audience were drawn into the unfolding story. Using simple lighting and music cues to give us the shape and guise of the production, we were ushered into a private, beautiful, tragic world of shared human experience.
Sherrin kept a simple set, two chairs and a table, furnished with symbols of a journey through two lives more separate than they ever were together. A Japanese statue, a naval hat, earrings strewn down in outrage, these gave us guideposts to the times and places we were revisiting. Letters glued into scrap books gave a strong feeling of nostalgia, of peeking into a friends diary when they were out of the room. Giving the audience an intimacy, and an immediate sense of recognition and closeness to these people. A fierce protectiveness is carefully nurtured between the audience and the cast. Indeed, Sherrin’s direction and staging feels designed to invoke strong reactions from the audience, ranging from outright laughter, jaw dropping silence, and open tears as their stories unfold and expand.
The first couple to portray Andrew and Melissa are Taine Harding and Chelsea August respectively. They walk us letter by letter through the school years, notes passed quietly in class, first boarding schools, and negotiating adolescent fumblings, giving way to deepening emotions. August brings a wide eyed optimism and effervescent energy to the role, alternating delightfully between the unbridled enthusiasm of youth, endless curiosity, and stroppy tantrums easily. The best moments of August’s work though, are the deadpan revelations about Melissa’s family. Perfectly delivered to stun the audience with the sharp change of pacing and intent, and is the work of a very sophisticated actor.
Harding is in every way her match. The energy shared between them is palpable and provides a beautiful connection between the two characters. This connection is crucial to making the play succeed, Harding provides a sometimes cocky, sometimes wary energy that matches up with August like book ends. He gives just the right amount of hesitation and uncertainty to balance Andrew out, and giving a full characterisation. In addition, Harding shows a surprisingly warm sympathy, atching up with the vulnerability given by August.
For our second iteration Dallas Fogarty and Jackie Wiley assume the roles and lead us through the couples collegiate years, exploring the world, and the war that comes with it. These two present a much less certain version of Andrew and Melissa. Fogarty presents a stubbornly mulish Andrew, determined to do things his way, often masking selfishness behind honour, and immediately giving a much stronger, more grounded feel to the production. At times his pace rushed a little, fumbling, and lines were lost. However this was quickly recovered, and Fogarty found his feet again easily.
Wiley presented a much brasher, deliberately overconfident Melissa. Her choices were solid, often giving answer coyly, and delivering a cold foreboding silence that kept the scenes as off balance as they needed to be. A touch more engagement up and out, away from the business of reading the letters, would have served Wiley well. Letting the audience into her world and seeing her thoughts more. She has a lovely speaking voice, and a strong presence on stage, I noted in the program that it was only her third role, and it would be so wonderful to see Wiley embrace the talent she has rather than hide in her letter.
For this couple I think the connective tissue of the relationship was not as solid as it is with the other two. This is, in a way, as it should be. The ‘middle years’ are one of the biggest periods of detachment that the pair go through, each more defiant, more independent, and struggling to find their own feet. However, that means that more must be done to anchor the moments of togetherness and to underscore the need that pulls the two together. The strong, independent scenes worked beautifully, but with a little more “star crossed lovers” thrown into the mix, this passage will lift to be something extraordinary.
Far and away the treat of the evening was the delicious chemistry between our third Andrew and Melissa. Brian Gamble and Jan Nary held court in the third and final act and it was as if we watched the play in full colour for the first time. Gamble gave a somber portrait as Andrew, fully suited and politically ambitious. For the first time we began to see the more carefully nuanced version of the character. Half truths proffered, and secret lives unwound under Gamble’s beautiful baritone voice.
Beside him, Nary was a revelation, and gave the performance of the evening. Undoubtedly one of the most difficult things about this production is that the actors have so little to do, the act of sitting and reading presenting a deceptively simple challenge. Nary takes the limitation of the chair, and makes it Melissa’s entire world, her support, and her prison. Her acting is masterful, most particularly in the silences, reacting subtly as Gamble speaks, without ever drawing too much focus. Nary accesses Melissa fully, eliciting laughter and tears from the audience in equal measure. The work done between Gamble and Nary is worth the price of admission alone.
The program notes discuss the idea that the play gives us an echo of a simpler time, before the internet and texting, messenger and snapchat. But the argument could be made that the show has never been more relevant to how we live our lives.
In a society more and more geared toward running at full pace as often as possible, working around the clock, and the lines between private and public thought becoming inextricably blurred, it is not uncommon to talk to friends from around the world through the power of a keystroke. Only keeping up with their lives through hastily written emails and messages. Indeed, the charm and immediacy of the letters as they are written and sent, received and read, ignored or responded to, reminded me a great deal of friendships I have. Sustained and nurtured only through emails written in offices in the dead of night, or messages sent off hastily as we run out the door to our next appointment.
The nostalgia of the play, and it is nostalgic in the most enchanting of ways, is matched by a sense of underlying contemporariness. That it could be anyone sitting in those chairs, that we could be at any point throughout time where the written word was used to communicate.
Love Letters is a story of exquisite charm and beauty, of the road not taken, of humanity connecting and not. It is beautifully performed, and far rarer in the canon than it ought to be. Do yourself a favour and travel into the Redlands to visit with Andrew and Melissa and to hear their story. It is well worth the trip. Love Letters plays until February 10th 2018. Tickets are available at www.matestg.org.au.