The end of another theatrical season has come to an end at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre, and the season generally ends with a big Broadway-style, all-singing, all-danding musical extravaganza. This year was different … very different, with a presentation of the two character play Love Letters, which reunites Love Story co-stars Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw.
Love Letters stars MacGraw as Melissa Gardner, whom we meet as a well-to-do elementary school age girl. O’Neal portrays Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, a wealthy, but less so, lad who has a crush on Melissa. The actors sit at a large wooden table and read their characters’ letter back and forth to each other over the course of fifty year. It’s clear that Andy has always been in love with Melissa, but she had more of a wild streak in her, always sabotaging any romantic encounters the two may have had over the course of their school years and beyond.
As the two age, they go their separate ways in life but always remain in touch through their letters. Melissa gets married, has kids, gets divorced, and lets her life spiral out of control but she knows she always has Andy there by mail wherever the two may be. Her biggest mistake is telling him he’s like a brother to her. Andy, try as he might, can never manage to get her attention long enough to profess his feelings and he eventually enters the military, marries (twice) and has children of his own. Yet, the two remain close and their paths cross once again. Complications ensue.
Love Letters author A.R. Gurney paints a fantastically real portrait of each character. We know exactly who they are without the actors having to do anything but sit and read their letters. But, credit is also due MacGraw and O’Neal, who bring Melissa and Andy to life because they’re not simply reading letters (or a script, really), they have inhabited the skins of their characters. When one is speaking, the other is truly listening, reacting with facial expressions or laughter at the letter. There are times when the two are having a bit of a feud and one is desperately continuing to send letters while the other sits there scowling and slouching in their chair, their feelings hurt by something that had been said in a previous letter. It may seem like the easiest acting job in the world since neither really needs to memorize their lines, but it’s truly a master class in the subtleties of bringing a character to life with nothing more than the words on the page.
With no sets or costumes or songs or dancers to back them up, MacGraw and O’Neal are the center of attention. It’s interesting to see them work in this format too because while they sit right next to each other, neither makes eye contact with the other really until the curtain call. It’s then that you can see the emotions this show has brought out of them, and how much of a bond the two really have as they leave the stage.
Love Letters may not have been the flashiest way to end the season, but with a great story, and two wonderful actors pouring their hearts into their roles, it makes for an enchanting, riveting, emotional night at the theatre.
Love Letters concludes its run in Baltimore on June 12.