Love Letters at Haddonfield Plays and Players

The team at Haddonfield Plays and Players knows how to celebrate the holidays. This past October they presented Murder by Poe for Halloween. In December they staged A Christmas Story. They continued this tradition by bringing a love story to their stage for Valentine’s Day. This February 23rd and 24th they presented A. R. Gurney’s Love Letters. Tami Gordon Brody directed. I attended the Sunday, February 24th performance.

Love Letters told the story of star-crossed lovers Melissa Garner (played by Jocelyn Mitchell-Williams) and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (Rick Williams). The two began a correspondence as children that continued throughout their adulthood. A tragic tale of two diverging lives resulted. Andy grew into a prominent lawyer and successful politician. Melissa entered into several failed marriages while fighting battles with both mental illness and substance abuse. Letter writing provided their connection to one another.

Love Letters premiered in 1989. The playwright crafted the drama in epistolary form. It contained only two characters. Each read letters that either he or she wrote to the other. The performers did so while sitting on chairs located at center stage.

This format can become problematical for directors staging it thirty years later. In an era of tweets, texts and big budget action films how can this premise still keep an audience’s attention for an hour-and-a-half?

To meet this challenge, Ms. Brody selected the real life husband and wife team of Jocelyn Mitchell-Williams and Rick Williams. Both performers have appeared in various community theatre productions. Audiences unfamiliar with his theatrical work will recognize Mr. Williams from his “day job” as the anchor of Action News at Noon and Action News at 5:00 PM.

The performers’ presentation methods captured the vicissitudes of life inherent in Mr. Gurney’s prose. Mr. Williams delivered his lines with the suave baritone familiar to his fans. Ms. Mitchell-Williams spoke in the sophisticated tone of a seasoned theatre professional. They managed to hold my interest for the show’s full 90 minutes.

I sat to the far end of stage left. From my vantage point I had a better view of Mr. Williams. I liked his clever use of facial expressions. His smiling, shock and surprised reactions to Ms. Mitchell-Williams’ comments added more depth to the production.

The story’s end contained an emotional catharsis. Ms. Mitchell-Williams played the only scene where one of Gurney’s characters directly spoke to the other. I found her interaction with Mr. Williams absolutely heartbreaking.

Gurney’s text caused an unexpected case of art imitating life. When professing Melissa’s love for Andrew, Ms. Mitchell-Williams delivered the line: “You’ll always be my anchorman.” It added some much needed levity to the story’s context.

The characters corresponded with one another over a fifty year time frame. It lasted from 1937 until 1987. In order to establish when events occurred, a series of images appeared on the backdrop. They included photos of Santa Clause, the picture of Harry Truman holding the infamous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline and a photo of the Challenger crew.

Pat DeFusco performed his usual excellent work designing the sound and visuals. Stage Manager Brennan Diorio and Technical Support Glen Funkhouser rounded out the production staff.

In the course of their letter writing, Ms. Mitchell-Williams’ character suggested that the two use alternate forms of communication; such as the telephone. Mr. Williams’ character disagreed. He championed the power of the written word.

But they gave us an out in the Land of Oz. They made us write. They didn’t make us write particularly well. And they didn’t always give us important things to write about. But they did make us sit down, and organize out thoughts, and convey those thoughts on paper as clearly as we would to another person. Thank God for that. That saved us. Or at least it saved me. So I have to keep writing letters. If I can’t write them to you, I have to write them to someone else. I don’t think I could ever stop writing them completely.

Perhaps, Love Letters has more importance today than when Mr. Gurney wrote it.

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