Friday, February 3, 2017

Ushering in the Valentine's Day season, "Love Letters" series opens at Theatre on the Square

Dan Flahive and Nan Macy opened a series of "Love Letters" performances.
The first time I saw "Love Letters" performed, the play was pretty new. It seems ages ago now, since the conventions of interpersonal communication — when it is not face-to-face — have changed so unalterably. By this measure 1990 was closer to 1940 than 1990 is to today.

This does not make A.R. Gurney's two-character 1988 opus seem dated, but the paradigm shift places it more firmly in an era when letter-writing was common. Long-distance telephoning was expensive, privacy was questionable — you had to answer a phone attached by a cord to a wall socket, kids — stamps were cheap, and cursive was universally taught at school. (Both my parents had beautiful penmanship; mine is a fair representative of its decadence; our sons, whenever they have to take pen in hand, print the letters as they did in first grade.)

As Dan Flahive and Nan Macy made clear in their performance Thursday night at Theatre on the Square, "Love Letters" lives. It may seem to present a bygone generation in amber, but, at the same time, the East Coast WASP establishment class was in its glory. So it's doubly a period piece. There's admirable social history at the core of "Love Letters." More important, there is an interpersonal connection at the heart of it that still lives in the age of texting, snapchatting, email, Instagram and probably some form of cybertelepathy about to be introduced.

Against a red wall lit by tea candles, the actors sit at desks placed side by side. This setting will be replicated by a tantalizing series of other local actors through Valentine's Day.  Playing upper-crust Nutmeg Staters Andy and Melissa, Flahive and Macy kicked things off creditably.

Each actor reads his/her half of the correspondence, dating from the juvenile Andy's acceptance of an invitation to schoolgirl Melissa's birthday party. Especially enjoyable was the choice of reactions each of these actors made as the other was expressively reciting the text of a letter. They gave you the spontaneous connection we all remember having when getting personal mail and balancing our feeling for the correspondent against what that correspondent happened to be saying at that moment.

On Thursday, the  pacing was varied and tone of voice suitable to the characters' stage of life. Nearly a half-century is covered, and what we learn about Andy and Melissa keeps changing, but with admirable psychological consistency. "Love Letters" has in common with other Gurney plays (at least the few I'm familiar with) a knack for creating characters representative of their social class yet still fully formed as individuals.

It was a world of country clubs, established etiquette, and enrollment in private schools without the benefit of public money. Gold-plated higher education was assumed before the fortunate student was disgorged into a presumably eager world. In summer you would go to high-toned camps where fun was filtered through a firm sense of order. Everyone was being groomed to take a place in a society assumed to be more stable than it truly was.

Melissa chafes at some of the choices that are made for her; Andy is more or less comfortable within a world of acceptable, confident adult control. Melissa is a free spirit set adrift ominously too soon by an unstable family, despite the cushion of greater wealth than Andy's. He is headed toward straight-arrow success; she is an artist who can't sustain an artistic vision any better than she can maintain a firm footing in her personal life.

The humor, affection, jealousy, and misunderstandings of this relationship were steadily projected. Andy's initial awkwardness and missteps in this friendship were nicely set out by Flahive within a characterization that emphasized a self-possessed approach to life. Macy, wide-eyed and flamboyant in her portrayal, never failed to hint at the manic-depressive side of her character, while keeping her performance out of the case-study ghetto.

Finally, a word about how the playwright stacks the deck. The male character has the superior hold on life, and part of that comes from his comfort in expressing himself verbally. Melissa's unease with writing makes a nice counterpoint to this. But of course, Gurney almost necessarily throws in his lot with the capable writer of the pair. Andy's lengthy encomium on the beauty of the written letter could almost stand for the durability of the written word itself. But this being theater, naturally the final verdict comes down on the side of the spoken word, well-performed. And on that score, the launch of this lovable shuffling of "Love Letters"  was most impressive.