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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.


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Saturday, February 23, 2008

entry arrow1:00 AM | “Dearest”—A History of Love in Letters

A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters is a strange play, to say the least. It is not a musical, so there is no danger of gnawing your tongue out from hearing all that bad singing. And it is not your typical drama where assorted characters populate several acts of intricate theatrics. What it is is minimalist theater in all its basic starkness: there is a simple set—sometimes with a table and some chairs, and there are only two actors playing characters springing from the privileged class in America. They read letters they have sent to each other, and in less than two hours, what we essentially get is a domestic epic that covers the high (and low) grounds of second grade, marriage, divorce, and finally, middle age. In between, we slowly get a story of their flirtations and frustrations, a simple narrative, really, of how we live our lives to accommodate that “tingle” for another.

But the emotional core behind Love Letters is titanic and its theme quite complex, easily transcending the minimalism of its presentation. When the play works, its emotional overflow can be overwhelming. It can move you, it can make you fall in love, and it can give you a Kleenex box full of tears—and for all that, this play is quite perfect for the Valentines season. Straight from its successful staging in Manila, Subic, and Cebu, Little Boy Productions and Actor’s Actor Inc. are bringing Gurney’s play to Dumaguete audiences, set to be staged on February 23 at the Claire Isabel McGill Luce Auditorium.

The play follows the life-long correspondence between Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (played by the incredible Bart Guingona) and Melissa Gardner (played by Pinky Amador). They are of the WASP set, that interesting subculture of America consisting mostly of upper middle class white Americans, who inhabit the good life. This is Gurney territory, and his more well-known plays, including The Dining Room, The Middle Ages, Richard Cory, The Golden Age, What I Did Last Summer, The Wayside Motor Inn, Sweet Sue, and The Perfect Party, cover the travails of this so-called “privileged class,” and often subjecting it to withering scrutiny—but always with a kind of affection. In Love Letters, we get a minor achievement in Gurney’s brand of social observation (he has written more powerful plays of the same ilk). Mel Gussow, writing for The New York Times, says that “within self-imposed limitations, [Love Letters] has dramatic assets. Written with Mr. Gurney’s customary authenticity, it becomes an often humorous Baedeker to a place and time, America—and an American elite—at midcentury.”

That sense of authenticity is what grounds the play for ordinary theatergoers, because—even if the characters are people from a background we can scarcely even begin to imagine (as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me…”)—they nevertheless embody something universally true about everyone regardless of class: we live to love, but that we often get blindsided by our own delusions to finally truly recognize it.

Andy (a staid, dutiful lawyer) and Melissa (a lively, unstable artist) write to each other beginning in childhood—through little notes and what-not. Because the play begins with that, we grow with them, and we grow with their story. That correspondence continues throughout the evolutions of their lives, never stopping even when the directions they decide to pursue individually take them away from each other. Little notes soon become long letters, sometimes just postcards and snapshots containing one-liners, all of which, taken together, chronicle each of their lives for the other. The fun part for the audience (and for the actors, as well) is reading in between those letters, and how one missive affects the other and extracts a truthful reaction.

And because this is a love story, it ends thus with the correspondence taking on a whole new meaning for our two characters who soon realize that what they’ve had all along—all these exchanges from childhood to adulthood—are love letters of a sort. The ending is also poignant for the paradox that the letters represent: as a medium of connection between two disparate souls, each letter also becomes the ultimate symbolic wedge that keeps them apart.

Love Letters is thus a story of connection, and trying to connect. It is also a story of marking down into something indelible the most whimsical of emotions.

And because it demands so much the demonstration of the unsaid or the unsayable, the play has become known in theater circles as one of the ultimate showcases for acting prowess. Grussow writes: “Not least of all, it is, in performance, a testimony to the actor’s art, a theatrical exercise in which actors, far more than in less schematic surroundings, have to draw upon their own intuitive resources—without the benefit of physical interaction or scenic effects—in order to create character and conflict.”

Thus, throughout its history (since it was first performed in 1988 at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut), Love Letters has showcased such star-studded pairings as Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, John Rubinstein and Joanna Gleason, Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards, Lynn Redgrave and John Clark, Stockard Channing and John Rubinstein, Jane Curtin and Edward Hermann, Kate Nelligan and David Dukes, Polly Bergen and Robert Vaughan, Timothy Hutton and Elizabeth McGovern, Swoosie Kurtz and Richard Thomas, Elaine Stritch and Cliff Robertson, Nancy Marchand and Fritz Weaver, Robert Foxworth and Elizabeth Montgomery, and a host of other actors such as Philip Bosco, Stephen Collins, Victor Garber, Julie Harris, George Grizzard, Anthony Heald, George Hearn, Richard Kiley, Dana Ivey, William Hurt, Marsha Mason, Christopher Reeve, Holland Taylor, George Segal, Christopher Walken, Treat Williams, and Frances Sternhagen. In the Philippines, Love Letters was first performed at the Thomas Jefferson Cultural Center, under the sponsorship of the Embassy of the United States. Aside from Guingona and Amador, it has been performed by notable theater actors as Audie Gemora and Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, Nonie Buencamino and Lara Fabregas, Jaime del Mundo and Josephine Roces, Michael Williams and Liza Infante, Chinggoy Alonzo and Sandy Hammett, and Paolo Fabregas and Miren Alvarez.


The play is the fifth event in the current cultural season sponsored by the Silliman University Cultural Affairs Committee. The last show for the season is the U.P. Guitar Orchestra Concert on March 1. Tickets are available at the College of Performing Arts Office and the Luce Auditorium Office, and at the theater lobby before every show. For inquiries and ticket reservations, please call/contact Gang-gang at (035) 422-6002 loc. 520.

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