'Love Letters' is more complicated than its deceptively simple staging

June 30, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

To a significant degree, A.R. Gurney's "Love Letters" is a gimmick play. And the Maryland Arts Festival at Towson State University has added an extra gimmick.

The script's gimmick is that, according to the playwright's own instructions, productions consist of two actors seated side by side at a table, reading aloud -- oblivious to each other's presence.

What they read, as the title indicates, are letters -- a lifetime's worth, beginning when their characters are in second grade and ending when they are senior citizens.

The festival's gimmick is that the play's fictional couple is being portrayed by a real-life married couple -- TSU faculty members Maravene Loeschke and C. Richard Gillespie. It's not the first time a husband and wife have taken these roles. Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach as well as Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker have had a go at it (as have a slew of other actors since the show's minimal rehearsal demands make it so easy to produce).

nTC However, seeing honest-to-goodness marrieds wrestle with the play's on-again-off-again relationship does add a special resonance, which Loeschke and Gillespie acknowledge with a kiss at the final curtain.

Before that, of course, they must work their way through the extensive correspondence of Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, upper class WASPs of the type Gurney specializes in. Melissa and Andrew exchange greeting cards, postcards, surreptitious class notes, invitations, replies to invitations, thank-you notes, condolence notes and, oh yes, love letters.

Merely reading a bunch of letters might sound like a breeze, but it's actually tricky stuff, which is why "Love Letters" requires a director -- in this case, Doug Roberts. The playwright's restrictions are the dramatic equivalent of, say, haiku or minimalist art; the challenge is to convey emotional range without so much as getting up out of a chair, much less making eye contact.

Loeschke, who has more recent and extensive stage experience than her husband, is the more effective and animated of the two. When she listens to Andrew's long letter detailing his studies in boarding school, she registers boredom first by resting her head on her hand, then by swinging one leg, and eventually by staring at the ceiling. After intermission, when she hears his family's Xeroxed Christmas letter, she takes her glasses off, crosses her arms in disgust and finally lets her head drop on the table.

Admittedly, unlike Melissa, who is an artist and a rebel, Gillespie's character is intended to be more repressed and uptight (he grows up to be a Republican lawyer elected to the U.S. Senate). However, it would help if his voice at least reflected Andrew's age span.

Still, Andrew's voyage of self-discovery is sufficiently convincing and Gurney's overall story is sufficiently touching to overcome minor imbalances in performance. Furthermore, though Gillespie and Loeschke are not the first married couple to perform "Love Letters," they may well be performing it longer than any previous pair. And, as this half-century of love letters proves, time can be a master at bridging gaps.

'Love Letters'

Where: Studio Theatre, Fine Arts Center, Osler and Cross Campus drives, Towson State University

When: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., matinee July 11 at 3 p.m. through July 17

Tickets: $12

Call: (410) 830-2787

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