“The frankest and freest product of the human mind and heart is a love letter," wrote Mark Twain. Sadly, the love letter has all but disappeared in the age of texts, tweets, video chats, and generic greeting cards.
The love letter is, however, very much alive and well in A.R Gurney’s 1988 two-person play Love Letters at Fitger’s Spirit of the North Theatre.
Gurney insisted that Love Letters requires “no theatre, no lengthy rehearsal, no special set, no memorization of lines.” The Boat Club production, with work from designers Jeff Brown and Curtis Phillips, does add some beautiful set pieces to give richness to the contrasting environments in which the two characters read their letters to each other.
Director Jonathan Manchester cast two favorite actors from the Twin Ports theater scene for these challenging roles, Michael Kraklio and Julie Ahasay. Both bring a wealth of acting experience to this show and, for Ahasay, also a number of directing gigs. Manchester too brings his varied theatrical background of acting and directing to guide his actors through a story of love, wrong turns, and fate.
Since its first performance in 1988, when the play was presented at the New York Public Library, with the author himself and actress Holland Taylor playing the roles, it has become a staple of community, regional, and professional theater, including on Broadway. Love Letters was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1990.
The list of some of the big-name actors who have taken on these two parts is impressive and includes: Carol Burnett and Brian Dennehy; Sigourney Weaver and Jeff Daniels; Katharine Ross and Sam Elliott; Alan Alda and Candice Bergen; Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks; Sally Field and Bryan Cranston; and Elizabeth Taylor and James Earl Jones, among a legion of others.
The biggest challenge of the show is for the actors to bring these two complex characters to life, through only the reading of cards and letters that they write to each other over the fifty years of their relationship. For the most part, the two actors sit and read the letters, not looking at each other throughout much of the play.
Kraklio has the less showy role as the conservative, shy, sometimes stuffy and hesitant Andrew Makepeace Ladd III. As his middle name suggests, he is more likely to make peace, than to face confrontation.
Kraklio best uses his comic acting chops in places like in his funny discussion of a groin pull that prevented him from dancing with Melissa.
He also shows well his true love of writing in his eloquent speeches about why he wants to write to Melissa.”I feel like a true lover when I'm writing you. This letter, which I'm writing with my own hand, with my own pen, in my own penmanship, comes from me and no one else, and is a present of myself to you.”
Kraklio shines when he talks about the importance of writing letters in amusing lines such as, “One thing about letters, you can’t hang up on them.” Melissa, of course, quickly retorts, “You can tear up the letters though, enclosed are the pieces.”
While at times, Kraklio could have used more facial and vocal variance, he is truly wonderful as an effective foil, occasional adversary, dear friend, and finally, a remorseful lover, who realizes too late the years lost, not spent with his true soul mate.
Ahasay is in entirely in her element, showing the many sides of the prism that is Melissa, an awkward, rebellious, wild, artistic, troubled, and, at times, “lost princess,” a phrase that Andrew uses to describe her from the first time he saw her in elementary school.
Ahasay reflects Melissa’s entirely different view of writing letters in her own uninhibited way. “Why do they keep pushing us together then pulling us apart? I think we’re all being brought up by a bunch of foolish farts. Now we’ll have to write letters which I hate.”
Using her absolutely magnificent repertoire of facial expressions, Ahasay has many shades of emotion showing on her face, whether she is reading one of her own letters or listening and reacting to one of his.
Her pacing, expression, and tone are demonstrative of her character’s petulance, anger, sadness, sense of humor, and ultimately her long unrequited love for her Andy.
Gurney, in praising actors who have played Andrew and Melissa, said, “What they do is a testament to the actor’s art. They just have the text. It’s like hang-gliding, they jump off the cliff and they fly. “
Both Kraklio and Ahasay do take the required leaps, and each of them delivers a performance that most often flies. Then the audience and their imaginations fill in the blanks between the lines to understand this tale of love land sadness, joy, and remorse, and these two flawed but fascinating people.
This play is both a love letter to the theater and an ode to the lost art of writing love letters. It deserves to be seen. A disappointment was the small number of audience members in attendance for opening night.
It is vital for audiences to also be patrons for the smaller arts organizations. Without the support of area audiences, it is challenging for these smaller organizations to continue to add their important piece to our theatrical and cultural landscape.
Bravo to producers like the Boat Club’s Jason Vincent and to companies who sponsor and contribute to arts organizations, small and large.
A Boat Club Production
Love Letters by A.R.Gurney At Fitger’s Spirit of the North Theater
SHOW DATES & TIMES
September 22-23 7:30pm | September 24 2:00pm
September 28-30 7:30pm | October 1 2:00pm
Box Office Phone Number: (218) 623-7065
Buy tickets at boatclubrestaurant.com Click on tickets from main site menu.
Next up for Boat Club Productions is A Don’t Hug Me Christmas Carol, running December 8-17. Tickets are available now.
About Sheryl Jensen
A retired educator with the Duluth Public Schools, Sheryl Jensen has been a theater director of over 60 school and community productions. Her production of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew at East High School won the National High School Theater award from the BRAVO television network.
Having written theater, music, dance, and opera reviews for the Duluth News Tribune for many years, she now is the Arts & Entertainment Editor for Destination Duluth.