“This is a play,
or rather a sort of a play, which needs no theater, no lengthy rehearsal, no special set, no memorization of lines…. It is designed simply to be read aloud by an actor and actress of roughly the same
age, sitting side by side at a table….”
This excerpt from the
introductory note by playwright A.R. Gurney essentially explains the setup of the play.
In the Apollo Civic Theater, no curtain is used. The stage setting is visible to the audience as they take their seats: two wooden chairs with brocade upholstery, of the type one would expect to see in
the homes of “Connecticut Preppies” such as the characters we will see in this play. Between the chairs, which face the audience, a simple end table with a pitcher and two glasses of water.
The Mayor of Martinsburg makes a short speech of welcome and thank you, then the actors come on stage. David Selby walks on first, then stands behind the first chair as Susan Sullivan is
seated, then goes to his chair and sits. He is dressed (as he was in the elevator earlier) as the epitome of the conservative
Connecticut Preppy he will portray this evening. Brown suit tailored to perfection,
with socks and shoes in coordinating shades of brown. A crisp white shirt and
yellow “club” tie complete his outfit. (One of my first jobs was as a mens’ department manager for a major
retailer – I NOTICE these things!) Susan Sullivan is wearing a conservative
dark dress, but the jewelry and the boots give a hint to the more avant guard nature of her character.
The play begins, as the
characters read letters they have been writing to each other since second grade, when Andrew Makepiece Ladd III accepted an
invitation to Melissa Channing Gardner’s birthday party. The letters continue
off and on throughout the next 50 years of the character’s lives, in turn funny, insightful, witty and heartbreaking
– sometimes all at the same time. Andy Ladd is a “good son”, raised to put duty and responsibility above
his own wishes in all aspects of his life. He is a man whom we see more than once sacrifice happiness in favor of doing the
‘right thing’. A reserved man capable of deep emotions, he is only
able to express them by way of the written word. This character, with his lifelong
love for both the process and the final result of writing, brings to mind a recent discussion on an internet list, centering
on the fact that the most articulate and prolific posters are the ones who are the most shy and ill at ease in face to face
His counterpoint and soulmate
is Melissa Gardner, a free spirit and risktaker searching for stability and love through failed marriages, an up and down
artistic career, battles with alcohol and depression and finally alienation from her grown children. The nature of their relationship is established in one of their first letters, where he explains his gift
of a particular book as her birthday present by explaining: “When you came into second grade with that stuck up nurse,
you looked like a lost princess.” This imagery continues through the play,
with her as the Lost Princess of Oz, forever searching for something she can never quite find.
She in turn, is his touchstone, preventing him from becoming too staid and self satisfied, in essence preserving his
humanity. The relationship of the two characters as confidants, friends, and, temporarily, lovers is a study in cross-purposes,
missed opportunities and might-have-beens.
This is the magic of theater
created in its most basic form, without the assistance of props, costumes or scenery.
Body language and their voices are the only tools at the actors’ disposal to create these characters. But it is more than enough. Despite the adult actors sitting there before you, what you see and hear are
the actions and reactions of children writing to each other; the excitement, enthusiasm, openness and blunt honesty are spot
on. Both actors carry this smoothly forward to the portrayals of the more mature characters through adolescence and adulthood.
Actions and reactions
essentially define the play; so much so that it was in a sense like following a tennis match.
Do you watch the actor reading the letter, and their reactions, or do you watch the reactions of the recipient hearing
the words? It was a tough call with these two actors! (And they deserve even
more credit than most, because when you think about it, if Susan Sullivan was coming in when the Selbys were leaving for the
theater, they could not have even done a read through together, unless it was done by telephone. This was essentially a cold read, with their portrayals and reactions based solely on their past working
relationship and their friendship.) As touching, and poignant as this play is, it is also funny. Very funny, in a range from sly wit to outrageous over the top humor.
I must admit one of my favourite sets of actions/reactions was the “Christmas letter” that Andy
had written instead of his wife. This letter was an absolute howl of a parody
of the worst, most self righteous smug news of the family letter Xeroxed and inflicted on the world at large. Susan Sullivan’s reactions as Melissa is hearing this thing,
the rejoinder she hurls back (that if she EVER gets another one of those “Drippy” letters from him she will invite
herself to their house and “moon the whole family”), and the combination of astonishment, hurt and disbelief with
which David Selby has Andy react to this news had the audience in stitches.
The final poignant letter
from Andy is read, the play is now over. There is a moment of silence, the actors
rise and take their bows to enthusiastic applause. Here and there audience members come to their feet until the entire theater
is giving them a standing ovation. They bow again and leave the stage with the
audience still standing and applauding.