A.R. Gurney's "Love Letters" will have a new correspondent at the Mechanic Theatre beginning tonight when Elaine Stritch takes over the role that has been played by Colleen Dewhurst for the past three weeks.
Miss Dewhurst, who had been suffering back spasms, left the production following Sunday's matinee. Her ailment was a chronic condition that flared up and "came to a point where she simply knew that it was really too difficult," according to Hope
Quackenbush, managing director of the Mechanic.
Due to the unusual nature of "Love Letters" -- now in the final week of its one-month run -- Miss Stritch will not be billed as an understudy, Mrs. Quackenbush said. A two-person play in which the actors sit side by side and read 50 years of correspondence, "Love Letters" requires minimal rehearsal time; in other cities, rotating casts have been the rule, not the exception.
Miss Stritch -- whose credits include the movies, "A Farewell to Arms" and Woody Allen's "September," as well as the Broadway production of "Company" and the concert version of "Follies" -- previously starred in "Love Letters" in London opposite George Peppard and in New York opposite Cliff Robertson and Jason Robards. George Hearn will continue to co-star at the Mechanic.
Because more than 200 actors have appeared in "Love Letters," the producers' office had a file of alumni to turn to when Miss Dewhurst was unable to complete the run. "Elaine is always near the top of the list whenever we consider doing the play anywhere," said producer Richard Frankel, adding that "she was the first person we called."
He also said this is the first time he has had to replace a "Love Letters" cast member. "Because [most actors perform the play for] only a week or two or three, or sometimes a night, the odds of it happening are less than a regular show," he explained.
But based on recent events in Baltimore theaters, it almost seems as if the odds of this happening here are unusually high. Though there is no connection, illness has struck a disproportionate number of actors at theaters ranging from the community to the professional level.
Center Stage, which generally doesn't hire understudies for economic reasons, was forced to cancel one performance of "Twelfth Night" and two of "The Mystery of Irma Vep" when cast members became ill within the last few weeks.
At community theaters, understudies are even more of a luxury.
But last month at the Vagabond Players when an actress in "Rashomon" lost her voice, another stepped in for a night and performed the role with script in hand.
And at the Spotlighters a few weeks earlier, Kenneth F. Hoke-Witherspoon, a playwright in Center Stage's Young People's Theater program, assumed the lead role in "Fences" with less than two weeks' rehearsal after medical problems forced the withdrawal of the actor who was originally cast.