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Feb 12, 2019 12:12 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Theater Review: 'Love Letters' Reinvigorates A Dying Art

Barbara Jo Howard and Dan Becker. DANE DUPUIS DANE DUPUIS
Feb 12, 2019 12:12 PM

Writing—whether it be in languages long extinct, modern English, or even hieroglyphics—is one of the earliest forms of communication. Letter writing in particular has a place in the evolution of culture and history. Despite this, the practice is essentially bordering on extinction—save for cards and legal or professional documents.A.R. Gurney’s 1988 play “Love Letters,” now playing at the Southampton Cultural Center, revolves around childhood acquaintances whose relationship develops over the years almost purely through writing letters to one another.

This Pulitzer Prize finalist comes without any bells or whistles. It is essentially a staged reading with two actors sitting at a table with a script of “letters,” which go back and forth through the evolution of their characters’ childhood into adolescence into adulthood. This bare bones approach, which was established in the script by Gurney himself, forces the audience members to use their imaginations to picture the two characters and the events that unfold as described in their letters.

The show begins in the 1930s, with two young children of privilege—Andrew Makepeace Lad III and Melissa Gardner—corresponding about topics ranging from birthday parties to Valentine’s Day. The two continue to write to each other as they attend different private schools and universities and deep into adulthood, which leads to complications in their personal lives.

Although actors John Leonard and Barbara Jo Howard, who took the stage at the Sunday matinée I attended, did not need to memorize the script, they face the challenge of conveying emotion while reading letters. Both Mr. Leonard and Ms. Howard approach this challenge with expertise—expressively reacting to “writing” and “reading” each other’s letters. (Daniel Becker and Catherine Maloney perform on alternate dates.)

The actors are also forced to alter their vocal inflections based on the ages of their characters. Mr. Leonard emulates the tone of a young boy and an adolescent with a shade of awkwardness and insecurity—both expressed in his intonation and body language, as if he’s physically embodying what is going on in the character’s mind.

Equally, Ms. Howard shows her acting prowess as her character falls into a downward spiral. Again, although she remains seated at a table, she is able to capture the audience’s attention with vocal and facial expressions—especially during the darker moments of the play.

The actors are complemented by lighting design that symbolizes the notion of love with red hues and putting the actors in darkness during certain points of the show with the intention of visually expressing what is unfolding in the letters.

Ultimately, the show itself is a love letter to the dying art of letter writing. It studies this form of communication through the characters. While Andy is absorbed in what becomes a passion, Melissa shows disdain for his letters at times—wondering why they can’t talk on the phone or meet in person more often.

As a modern viewer, this idea of Andy preferring to write letters—“[I’m] giving myself to you totally,” he writes in one letter—may bring to mind the challenges we face with communication and technology today. While phones were viewed in the past as less intimate than writing a letter, today we are nostalgic for the days of speaking to each other on landlines or face-to-face.

Meanwhile, our modern forms of written communication like emails, texts, tweets and social media comments are viewed as lacking any form of intimacy, which raises the question: What makes these modern day short-form letters less appealing and romantic?

A sign of a great work is its ability to be essentially timeless—to be reinterpreted by generations decade after decade. Although the play was written 30 years ago, we can absorb its core messages about human communication today.

One might argue that it is a dated piece, but it appears that is the intention of Mr. Gurney to look back at letter writing and come to a conclusion as to why it’s become a rarely used form of communication.

It might even inspire you to pen your own letter to a friend, a loved one, or a long-lost connection.

“Love Letters” presented by Center Stage will have its final performances on Friday, February 15, and Saturday, February 16, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, February 17, at 2:30 p.m. at the Southampton Cultural Center. Tickets are $25, or $12 for students under 21 with ID. Call 631-287-4377 or visit scc-arts.org.

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