Letter-writing is a lost art, unless you count all the texting, Facebooking, tweeting and SnapChatting.
But it’s something that Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III keep alive as they write letters with love to each other from childhood to adulthood until one of their tragic deaths.
It’s much to Melissa’s dismay, as she continuously said she hates writing letters. Andy loves it. Regardless, their letter-writing and love withstands the tests of time even if they never fully get to be a couple and their lives take a lot of twists and turns.
Movie actors Ryan O’Neal (Andrew) and Ali MacGraw (Melissa) bring their characters’ words to life. Rejoining each other on stage after starring in “Love Story” in the 1970s, these two are what make “Love Letters” such a success at The Bushnell Performing Arts Center.
The show could be pretty droll if you didn’t have the right actors in it. It’s very simplistic, almost with an “Our Town” bare-set feel to it. There’s just a lamp set upstage. O’Neal and MacGraw sit toward the very front of the stage in two chairs side-by-side at one desk. With water glasses on hand, the whole play is them reading their characters’ letters to each other from binders. There is no action and they’re sitting the whole time.
But where the show is lacking in movement, O’Neal and MacGraw implement vocal and facial expressions to really make you imagine the words they are speaking from the letters and understand their characters, emotions and intent. The way they read is much like voicing characters in animated features. Vocal intonation and delivery is so much more important because it represents the action that we’re not seeing and can only imagine.
While they didn’t change the sound of their voices in reading the letters from their elementary school years to map the physical change in age we’re not seeing, the words and style of the book are so vital in making that distinction. Having adults read the words of children reminded me of retrospective narratives like “A Christmas Story” when you have the adult reflecting on his or her youth.
The Bushnell often hosts big musical productions with a lot of people on stage, so it was unique to have such a small show with only two actors in the big space at Mortensen Hall. The acoustics of the theater are often challenging, especially the further back you sit. Initially on opening night Tuesday, I had to strain my ears to make out what O’Neal and MacGraw were saying since the play itself does not require loud, dynamic voices. However, it seemed like the more the actors adjusted to the space, the more they projected and the easier it was to hear them.
Because the show relies so much on words, you really have to pay attention or you’ll lose interest. But the way the actors deliver the lines helps make the words more compelling. I could really grasp who these people were.
Andy is ambitious and a scholar. He has a passion for writing and is success-driven. Melissa struggles with mental health, going to rehab for help and having a hard time admitting she’s in love. The two are ships passing in the night and their timing is all off. But they always have their letters.
When they take breaks from letter-writing, the actors portray this by silence and somber, indignant expressions as they ignore each other. It served well to represent the anxiety of waiting to hear back from someone and the uncertainty that follows when words are absent.
I also enjoyed all the references to Connecticut and Hartford, which makes the unseen setting of the story more real and relatable as you watch the show in the capital city.
While the ending is tragic, this is a true love story, so it’s only fitting that it runs through Valentine’s Day on Sunday. If you’re looking for a good date night activity this weekend, what epitomizes the holiday weekend more than “Love Letters”?
The Bushnell is located at 166 Capitol Ave. in Hartford. For more information about the show and purchasing tickets, visit bushnell.org.