THEATER | Yellow Tree Theatre’s “Love Letters”: Simple and moving

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Love Letters, by A.R. Gurney, is now on stage at Yellow Tree Theatre featuring the husband/wife team of Tom and Pat Isbell. The Isbells’ presentation of two souls who find comfort with each other through their written correspondence, despite their oftentimes lonely existence, makes for a charming and bittersweet show.

The play spans 50 years in the lives of two characters within 90 minutes, using only two desks and a stack of paper. It tells the story of Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner, who begin writing letters to each other in elementary school during the 1930s. Both are from well-to-do families. Their letters to each other alternate between flirtation and friendship.

Andrew has a stable family life while Melissa deals with her parents’ divorce, her mother’s alcoholism and as well as sexual abuse by her mother’s new husband. Both are sent to resolutely horrid boarding schools during their adolescence. Then each is off to a separate prestigious college. As an adult, Andrew excels by completing Yale Law School, joining a prestigious law firm, making a socially appropriate marriage, and becoming a U.S. Senator.  Melissa too achieves some degree of success as an artist, but her life is rocked by alcohol addiction, divorce and custody battles.

The playwright intended his play to have minimal sets and props. Within the limitations of being confined to the desk and reading the written word, both actors do an effective job of developing and conveying their characters. They look to the audience as they read their correspondence back and forth and, until the end, they never look at each other. Tom Isbell strikes a perfect pitch in creating the uptight and proper Andy. Andy is always trying to satisfy his controlling parents, but he is also making efforts to do what he thinks is the right thing. It becomes clear that he shares with Melissa a side of himself that he shares with no one else. Pat Isbell gives a very compelling portrait of despair as the artistic and self-destructive Melissa who never feels she belongs and who often finds herself abandoning her art for the bottle. Both actors deservedly received standing ovations from the audience.

Love Letters not only shows us a bitter sweet relationship, it also shows the beauty of the art of letter writing—an art lost in the modern era of texting and tweeting. The set consists of mobile-like assemblage of written correspondence between the desks. Jeffrey Peterson, the scenic designer, does an ingenious job of creating the effect of pages tossed in the air and floating to earth like leaves. During intermission, curiosity drove me to examine the invisible guide wires that allowed the paper to hang effortlessly in midair.

This is the fourth production that I have seen at Yellow Tree in the last two years and I am impressed with how the theater has grown—it has seems to have developed a group of audience regulars who I have seen in attendance at other performances. If you haven’t had a chance to check out this relatively new theater yet, I recommend you do so by seeing Love Letters during its limited run there.