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For I'm Bound for West Virginia With a Roadmap on My Knee-Part Three (Play Review)

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Part Three:
 
The Play Itself

“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 conversation.

 

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.

 

Part 4A: People Watching and Other Adventures

review @ 2003 by JMW and may not be reprinted in any form without prior written permission

This website is @2004-2013 by JMW. No original article or photograph may be reprinted in any form without prior written permission from JMW