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Wilde's stab at 'Love Letters' results in a predictable but touching character study

Critics groan when they see A.R. Gurney's Love Letters on a playbill. More often than not, the play comes off as a slick and sentimental vehicle for two stars who swoop in, read their lines onstage with minimal rehearsal, then swoop out after a few nights to be replaced by some other pair of ill-prepared celebrities.

Audiences, on the other hand, adore Love Letters, an epistolary play that follows the bumpy relationship of childhood friends through more than 40 years of gossipy missives, billets-doux, uninformative postcards, wedding invitations and falsely chipper Christmas cards.

So who's right, the critics or the audience? As produced by Wilde Playhouse, Love Letters turns out to be a somewhat predictable but touching character study, a worthy project for two actors and a director who actually put some effort into the presentation.

Not that there's anything of visual interest here, beyond the actors' faces. All you really need for Love Letters is to throw some light onto two stools and a pair of music stands that hold the scripts. Wilde Playhouse goes just one step further, seating each performer at a small table with a glass of water and a notebook containing pages of the script, as if director Sabian Trout were waiting for Spalding Gray to come back from the dead, chastened enough to let someone else butt in on one of his monologues.

There's no scenery, no lighting effects, no costume changes, no music aside from a bit of mood-lifting Vivaldi between acts. Just Carlisle Ellis and Ron Richards, and Gurney's words. It's a serious burden for a pair of actors, although too few celebrities realize it; locals Ellis and Richards shoulder the burden with care, and carry it with grace.

For starters, they've actually memorized their lines. Inverting the usual Love Letters nose-in-the-script routine, it's now the person who's speaking who looks up, establishing a strong connection with the audience as well as with the lines.

Perhaps a bit of explanation is in order. The play begins in 1937 with a series of dutiful party invitations and thank-you notes between two upper-class WASP second-graders, Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III. Before long, the correspondence has expanded to notes furtively passed in class, and hesitant but heartfelt valentines. The kids are sent off to separate boarding schools, but keep writing, despite Melissa's distaste for letters. Andy and Melissa get together at the occasional dance or holiday party, but through their teen years, their meetings usually lead to friction. Melissa is the rebellious daughter of a divorced alcoholic; Andy is the dutiful son of exceptionally conventional parents. As the years wear on, Melissa grows increasingly anarchic, while Andy settles into stuffy smugness.

At some point in their youth, of course, they fell in love, but distance and disjunctive life patterns prevent them from acting on their love. They become involved with other people, cultivate careers, and through the decades maintain a lifeline-like correspondence, even though one is more often than not jealous of the other, or hurt by some inattention or transgression.

Director Trout has her actors keep things simple and direct in the first quarter of the play. Ellis and Richards don't indulge in any faux childishness during the grade-school passages, yet they do convey that curious childlike mixture of conniving and innocence. Ellis then embarks on a wonderfully smooth and subtle development of Melissa's character, from petulant teenager through cynical free spirit to desperate and lonely divorcee. You can pretty well guess what Gurney is going to throw at Melissa as the play develops; Ellis' brilliance is that she makes every turn and complication in Melissa's life seem fresh, yet by the end, she has shown Melissa's path to be consistent and sadly inevitable.

By comparison, Richards has difficulty rising above Andy's inherent blandness. He hits the same couple of notes from beginning to end, and although he does that quite well, his final moment is flatter than it needs to be. Richards is fully invested in his character and handles each exchange well, yet at evening's end, his Andy hasn't made any sort of personal journey, certainly not compared to Ellis' Melissa.

At the heart of Gurney's play is a love letter to letter-writing itself. Andy, for whom personal encounters don't come off too well, regards letter-writing as an opportunity to present himself in the best possible light, while at the same time to be more direct, honest and true than is possible face to face. This is precisely what Wilde Playhouse achieves in its production of Love Letters.

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