Review: Love Letters

Billie Thrash and Stephen Hilton in Love Letters                                                    Photo by Jared Blount

By Larry Laneer
February 17, 2020

A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, from 1988, passes the test of time as one of the great American plays of the 20th century. The script’s elegant simplicity and integrity make it a dramatic gem. But the flawed production now by Pollard Theatre Company exposes the play’s fragility when not handled according to the playwright’s intentions.

Directed by Gregory Hopkins, the production features the most spot-on casting we may see all season. Stephen Hilton (as Andrew Makepeace Ladd III) and Billie Thrash (as Melissa Gardner) play two upper-class East coast WASPs who correspond with each other over 50 years, beginning in 1937 when they were in second grade. The characters should not be that sympathetic. Melissa is a poor little rich girl, and Andy goes into politics as a “liberal Republican,” a species that is now extinct. But Gurney, who died in 2017 and specialized in these types of characters, makes them as human as you and me.

The play’s conceit is two actors sit at desks and read the letters, cards, notes, and miscellaneous missives from the script. Thus, Love Letters works like drama on radio: the play doesn’t take place as much on stage as it does in audience members’ imaginations. When done properly, the play comes off vivid and meaningful to audience members who fill in the details of the characters’ lives. Our imaginations can produce costumes, scenery, lighting, and staging even the best designers and directors can never match.

The concept is so beautifully complete it is easy for directors to mess it up. If the director takes a heavy hand to the script, he wrecks the effect. The Pollard production begins well enough with two simple escritoires with red leather chairs on stage under focused lighting. But at the back of the stage, projections are shown relating to the action. Granted, it’s only two different projections per act, but they are superfluous and intrusive.

Gurney includes ellipses throughout the script that indicate, I guess, brief pauses in the dialog. During these pauses, which last only seconds, the lights in this production go down and, then, almost immediately come back up for the next lines. This business with lights is annoying and distracting, and it happens constantly throughout the play’s two acts. One more flicker of the lights and Pollard will have to post a strobe warning in the lobby.

Hopkins has the actors’ performances amped up to high levels. They act out the letters more than read them. This is not how Gurney intended for the play to be done. Hopkins seems to lack confidence in what Gurney has written. (It could be worse. This is at least the sixth production of Love Letters I’ve seen, one was by Pollard in 1993. In a couple of them, directors had the actors stand up and walk around the stage with scripts in hand, which does not happen in this production. The playwright’s intended effect was completely destroyed, because the play took place mainly on stage, not in audience members’ imaginations.)

It’s a good idea to rethink plays and find other ways to do them, seeking new insights. It’s also wise to avoid trying to fix things that aren’t broken.

Love Letters should be revived regularly so every generation of theatergoers can see it. When done properly, it is brilliant theater. But when mishandled, it’s a huge disappointment.

Love Letters by A.R. Gurney
Pollard Theatre Company
8:00 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, through February 29,
8:00 p.m. Thursday, February 27, 2:00 p.m. Sundays, February 16 and 23
Pollard Theatre
120 W. Harrison Ave., Guthrie
405-282-2800