Love, the written word and fresh air. Burlington County Footlighters is employing this winning trifecta this September. Utilizing Jim Frazer’s latest innovation to South Jersey community theatre set design, the company is presenting AR Gurney’s Love Letters in the great outdoors of Cinnaminson, New Jersey. Your correspondent attended the September 11th performance.
As this event took place on the nineteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks upon our country, everyone observed a moment of silence for those lost.
Community theatre legend Alice Weber is directing this run of Love Letters. While known for cerebral and thought-provoking shows such as Dr. Cook’s Garden, Coyote on a Fence and The Tin Woman. Ms. Weber’s recent projects have focused more on interpersonal relationships. Last month she performed opposite her real-life husband John in Bridge Players Theatre Company’s Zoom presentation of the Sean Grennan comedy Couples. In October of 2019, she directed Driving Miss Daisy on Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage.
Love Letters combined both of Ms. Weber’s artistic interests. It surveyed the relationship of Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (played by Rick Williams) and Melissa Gardner (Jocelyn Mitchell-Williams) from childhood through middle age. As a twist, the playwright used letters, cards and postcards as the means these characters used to communicate with one another. They never interacted directly. In a sense, the script explored whether two people could maintain a strong emotional bond through only the written word.
The set framed the story excellently. Ms. Weber and Jim Frazer positioned a solid blue desk at stage right and a pink one at stage left. The latter contained an opening in front of Melissa. It reflected her willingness to expose her feelings contrasted by Andrew’s more reserved nature. That trait may have explained his preference for expressing his thoughts to a blank page instead of by speaking them directly to someone.
The two scenic designers selected outstanding props to enhance the story. Several thick books set upon Mr. Williams’ desk. The one where Mrs. Williams sat contained a desk lamp. It takes a special kind of talent to give a light significant impact on a performance. The performer and director utilized it for maximum effect.
The outdoor stage allowed for types distractions that actors aren’t accustomed to confronting. Sudden wind gusts, fluttering moths and cheering from the softball game at adjoining Wood Park all intruded. Mr. and Mrs. Williams delivered such engrossing performances that these environmental factors had negligible impact on the show. Had it not been for your correspondent’s renowned attention to detail, he wouldn’t have noticed them, either.
Directing a show such as Love Letters creates unique challenges. It lacks scene changes and contains two characters who remain seated the entire time. The “action” entails the performers reading the script to one another for 90 minutes. This format could bore an audience. Ms. Webber along with real life husband and wife Rick Williams and Jocelyn Mitchell-Williams found creative ways to keep everyone engaged.
As with Driving Miss Daisy, Ms. Weber selected Rick Williams to play the male lead. Mr. Williams showed that his familiar baritone is but one trait among the many in his talented repertoire. He delivered his lines in the convincing voice of a youngster during the first act. Mr. Williams showed a penchant for comedy through his expression of lines such as, “(They) took my temperature the wrong way.” He also related the witty, “They had us compare all four Gospels. It’s hard to believe they’re all about the same guy.”
The performer showed that there’s much more to his abilities than a smooth voice. When Mrs. Williams related that she’d drawn naked pictures of the two, he responded with hysterical facial expressions. His limping to illustrate a groin pull brought out laughs from the audience; as did Mrs. Williams’ riposte, “I think Jenny Waters stretched your groin.”
Mr. Williams showcased the range of his dramatic capabilities. The dismissive manner in which he refused to describe Andy’s breakup with a Japanese woman showed Andy’s reluctance for expressing his feelings. Mr. Williams keen use of pauses at the performance’s conclusion made the scene more tragic than words can describe.
Jocelyn Mitchell-Williams portrayed Melissa; a difficult role. Whereas Andy’s star ascended into the stratosphere, Melissa’s life came unraveled. The family issues, substance abuse problems and career failures channeled her character into a downward spiral. Mrs. Williams gave this role the intense treatment it required.
Mrs. Williams spoke in a charming and endearing child’s voice during the show’s opening act. Her tone and presence reflected the privileged upbringing that surrounded her character.
Then things got real real quick.
Mrs. Williams nonchalantly related how, “Mommy says I’m a self-destructive person.” Throughout the first act, she expatiated on this observation. She got in trouble at one school for smoking. Another one expelled her for drinking gin. Bad relationships and career failures followed.
This empathetic figured deteriorated into a tragic one during the second act. Mrs. Williams nipped from a glass whenever her character wasn’t speaking. She enacted the effects of depression and substance abuse with gripping realism. The performer delivered her lines with a slight slur in her voice. She still spoke clearly enough so the audience could understand her.
Mrs. Williams also played the character’s comedic side with the same passion. Mrs. Williams ripped a series of papers as Mr. Williams said he’d hoped she wasn’t mad at him. She followed this by placing the ripped sheets into an envelope that she mailed to him. This reviewer also enjoyed her yawning as Mr. Williams recited lines from Paradise Lost.
The best scene occurred when the two characters argued. They did so via their letters to one another. The clever uses of silence and pauses made the exchange believable.
Other members of the production team included the omni-talented Jim Frazer on lighting design. John Weber managed the sound design which Peg Smith operated.
Life imitated art at the show’s conclusion. In homage to one of the references in the story, Mr. Williams’ son handed him a bouquet of red roses. Mr. Williams then presented it to his wife.
As with all Burlington County Footlighters Back Stage performances, the company enforced COVID-19 safety measures. They conducted temperature scans on audience members prior to allowing them access to the seating area. All attendees brought either their own chairs or blankets to the event along with their own concessions. Everyone sat at least six feet apart from one another. Footlighters required that everyone wear a facemask when not in their own place in the seating area. To limit the touching of objects, the host checked audience members in on a tablet. The playbill is available on-line; no paper copies were distributed.
Love Letters premiered in 1989. Since then, email, texting and smartphones may have made the concept of letter writing seem passe. Based on the power of AR Gurney’s play, that would the real tragedy. This show runs through September 20th at the Burlington County Footlighters Back Stage. After that, Andy’s inkwell runs dry.