A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters tells the story of a pair of intertwined lives in the simplest way possible. The 1989 work is often staged minimally, with two actors seated at a table reading their lines — which consist of letters the characters, Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, send to each other from childhood through maturity to the borders of old age. But at the Lone Tree Arts Center, director Bruce K. Sevy has the action take place on a set representing a warm study, and his two actors move about, owning the entire space and sometimes crossing within a foot of each other, though never directly interacting. And though it seemed to me that every now and then that one or the other glanced at a script, for the most part they spoke with apparent freedom.
At the beginning, the two discuss parties and Andy’s all-boys’ school, and send each other drawings. Small details of their home lives leak out, as do some hints of who they really are at the core and what they will become. Melissa’s wealthy family — far wealthier than his, as she likes to remind Andy — is troubled, while his home life is conventional and intact. She hates writing and sometimes breaks the letter exchange to sulk in silence, but she is consistently drawn to shape and color — even the shape of a bedpan. Meanwhile, he’s dutifully following the path his father laid out for him. “You’re always doing the right thing,” Melissa complains. As they grow up, their letters reflect their changing lives and the complexities of their feelings for each other. It’s not surprising when she becomes an artist and moves to Italy, or when, after acquiring a law degree at Harvard and rising steadily through the legal ranks, he enters politics.
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The production is wonderfully cast. Portraying the child Melissa, Candy Brown is charming, self-willed and evasive, with a wicked little smile. Eventually, Melissa’s life darkens and Brown becomes the lost and desperately searching member of the duo. Mark Rubald makes the young Andy a bit of a prig, but gives him an appealing easiness and natural elegance as he matures that serve as a reminder that there were once thoughtful, classy conservatives in this country’s political sphere.
Gurney, who died earlier this year at 86, grew up in a privileged, prosperous environment, and he’s a keen observer of the upper classes. In Love Letters, Andrew is very conscious of class; he refers to his childhood world as “Oz.” Yet he adheres rigidly to its mores, including the supportive wife, the three sons all headed for success, and even the smarmy annual Christmas letters detailing the family’s triumphs while omitting anything negative. Melissa, rebelling against her own family, mocking his conventionality and tossing out deliberately shocking statements, offers a tantalizing and different way of seeing the world. But eventually, depression, alcoholism and instability destroy the life of art she’s created.
One of Gurney’s earliest successes, The Dining Room, was nominated for a Pulitzer in 1985. A wistful, insightful comedy of manners consisting of a series of vignettes and set in a dining room, in contains mention of finger bowls, the importance of good manners and grammar. You can tell the author is immersed in this world, but he also brings to it an analytic and iconoclastic questioning. Love Letters is in somewhat the same vein as The Dining Room — a gentle play, thoughtfully presented and with a moving, nostalgic undercurrent that reminds us of the power of the letter over the telephone as a means of communication. At one point, Andrew comments gratefully, “How stupidly they brought us up. But they made us write.”
Love Letters, presented by Lone Tree Arts Center through November 19, 10075 Commons Street, Lone Tree, 720-509-1000, lonetreeartscenter.org.