No one writes love letters any more in our age of instant Social Media. The leisurely, thoughtful meanderings of hand-written letters that recorded history and romance have been supplanted by pictures and tribal lingo native to Instagram, Instant Messenger, live chat, Facetime, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Skype and other hyperdrive social venues.
If one considers the sheer power of virtuality, then A.R. Gurney’s play Love Letters is an obsolete bore one can toss away like vinyl records and 35mm cameras. But there are collectors who adore such things and understand their value. For those who like to muse, pull apart mysteries and dig into the caverns of human relationships and the soulful self, love letters are a gold mine, as is Gurney’s play. And we all know where the price of gold has skyrocketed to since this work was first produced in 1988.
The analogy between a gold mine and the play is pointed. Love Letters, impeccably directed by Gregory Mosher at the Brooks Atkinson until February 15 (see upcoming star-studded casts below), is even more timely and precious than when it first appeared at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven almost three decades ago. As we look back at a culture and a century that have slipped through our fingers like water, the play differentiates those values that are immutable and those that are perishable. It is a reaffirmation of the profound friendship, care and soul love that is possible between two individuals.
Such ties have existed before the discovery of the telegraph and will exist long after today’s digital media have been replaced with the next technological communications advance. Regardless of the age or the era, if one can find a spiritual love that is reciprocated, then one has riches that surpass any gold mine, regardless of the social platform used to communicate.
Love Letters chronicles the developing relationship between Melissa (I saw the shatteringly real and heartfelt performance by Carol Burnett), and Andy (Brian Dennehy was stirring and just remarkable). Their relationship through letter writing (prompted at times by covert necessity) lasts through their marriages and divorces (not to each other), jealousies and fights, silent rages and deep-rooted problems. Gurney shows their relationship’s everlasting nature by revealing that not even death can sever the transcendent bond that has been strengthening throughout their lives, a bond made sacred by their expressed emotions, thoughts and feelings on paper.
The electrifying connection begins when they are around eight years old. Mrs. Gardner invites Andy to Melissa’s birthday party and Melissa writes a thank-you note ending with a question about why Andy gave her Frank L. Baum’s The Lost Princess of Oz. He answers her in a letter and the seed is planted; the gift, his reply, her reply and their exchange foreshadows a lifelong relationship with symbolic ramifications.
Neither the characters nor we, the audience, realize the import of Andy’s answer (at first). Gurney expands the metaphor of Melissa as a lost princess throughout her life as she reveals issues, emotions and troubles in her letters to Andy. We see his insight, care and concern for her as she grows in importance to him and creates meaning and substance in his life. It is at the end of the play that Andy’s response to her long-ago question about the book reveals its full significance: he tells her he gave her that book because when he first set eyes upon her, she “looked like a lost princess.”
Throughout the play as they collide with boyfriends and girlfriends, see each other, write about their high school and college experiences, discuss their sexual encounters with others, and share family issues and careers, they come to rely on each other for advice and comfort. Melissa indeed is lost. Eventually, when they romantically engage for a brief and illicit affair, we understand how Andy has tried to help her find herself (taking the prince role), because he has always loved her. And we “get” how her probing intellect and artistic sensibility have generated a truthfulness in Andy that he has never been able to replicate with any other individual on the planet, though he has twice married and has cared for his wives. She has helped a prince of a man find himself.
Threaded with humor and pathos throughout, the play reveals the reasons why their soul friendship and love bonds which are never matrimonial travel the decades and return even after long periods of separation, internal crisis and angry silences. The two are devastatingly frank with one another. They perceive each others’ faults and identify them without guile.
Melissa is impulsive and doesn’t consider the reasons for her choices and actions, suppressing blind stacks of pain fostered by an unhappy home life, divorced parents, and a molesting stepfather which she never fully discusses with Andy and only hints at. Though both come from upper middle class families, hers wealthier than Andy’s, she affirms that she may have everything materially, but she is unhappy, while his family situation is more secure and emotionally solid.
The problem is that the solidity has mired Andy into always “doing the respectable thing,” though it may not be good for himself or his own inner development. Melissa chides him that he is not able to break away from his father’s sayings and notions; Andy does what his father wants and parallels what his father believes. It is a problem that plagues Andy all of his life. It is also a problem in that this insecurity may have stifled the true happiness Andy could have experienced with Melissa, an insecurity that prevents the two of them from coming together to make a life and family.
The faults which each identify cause their separations and jealousies and push them into different individuals’ arms. Yet, their underlying love brings them back to each other to continue writing and strengthening their love and friendship. Gurney demonstrates an important element crucial to their long-lasting relationship: the ability to release ego, apologize, admit mistakes, and forgive. The tragedy is that they never learn to forgive themselves. This is the crack in their psyches that they are unable to overcome. Nevertheless, their love for each other has made their lives richer despite this damaging flaw.
Gurney’s characterization is drawn via some of the most ingenious and carefully constructed writing about the nature of people and relationships, manifesting humor, authenticity and soulfulness. As I watched Carol Burnett and Brian Dennehy (Candice Bergen and Alan Alda now star), read Melissa’s and Andy’s letters, and understood the depth of the characters’ lives through their disclosed, secret feelings, it was a thrilling revelation. Gurney and the profoundly talented actors take us by the hand and show us how deep abiding friendship and love may be realized. This alone is amazing, for how many of us can remember even some of the turning points of life that made us who we are in the present, especially shifted through the prism of a profound relationship that intimates the best of who we might be?
By the play’s end Gurney reinforces the point that it is through the filter of Andy’s and Melissa’s letters that they have been able to explain the truth of themselves. It is a way that is easier than if they were face to face. The idea that written communication allows us to expose who we are to another treasured person because the psyche is the ultimate audience that listens and guides is an especially powerful concept.
Though one would think the play is from “back in the day,” Gurney emphasizes that people need to express and understand who they are through another medium (pictures on Instagram, text messages, Youtube videos, Facebook posts, tweets, handwritten letters). This is what initiates meaningful communication with others to avoid being alone despite the fact that we are alone in our unique consciousness. The fun of existence is presenting who we are, who we perceive ourselves to be, and who we allow ourselves to be as we watch our own truth-telling confessions to others we care about. And those we can be most honest with and who are the most nonjudgmental and forgiving, are our soul buddies or friends. If we are really fortunate, they might be our best friends and lifelong marriage partners.
For Andy the letters and communication with Melissa are his lifeblood. For Melissa, letter writing holds great pain which she confides to Andy in initially subtle and then overt pleas for help. Ultimately, the love between them is their historical record of who they are, who they wish to be, and what they wish to nullify in themselves. It is an accurate portrait, perhaps even more authentic than a journal.
Carol Burnett and Brian Dennehy found Gurney’s words to be familiar places in which to brilliantly show the authenticity of Melissa and Andy so that we could empathize and recognize in them our youthful and aging selves. The relationship they crafted was beautiful and tragic, filled with regret and with the energy of the love that helped them deal with their lives beyond the pain, the inability to cope, the compromise of being someone else’s dream at the expense of self. This play is potent; it is timeless; its message is for all who hope to love and do.
It is an extraordinary, must-see experience. Equally talented actors (the first run was with Mia Farrow and Dennehy) are honoring Gurney’s work to breathe life into Melissa and Andy during the run of Love Letters through February 15. I will be going back to see how three additional star pairings will bring their interpretations to Gurney’s poignant and real characters. I can’t wait.
Diana Rigg and Stacy Keach: December 6-January 9.
Anjelica Huston and Martin Sheen: January 10-February 15.