By Kip Tabb
Letter writing has become somewhat of a lost art. There are in our modern world so many other ways to communicate the written word—email, text, Facebook—but ultimately there is nothing so personal as a letter from one person to another.
Brought to the stage by the Bryan Cultural Series, Love Letters, performed Tuesday night at the Hilton Garden Inn, is a poignant, bittersweet yet humous play that makes the strongest case possible for writing a letter to those who are important in our lives.
A two-person play, Tom Wilson and his wife Pat, performed the roles of Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner perfectly. Tom was, until his recent retirement, the Rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Southern Shores.
Love Letters is a play that requires actors who have experienced some of the ups and downs of life, and Tom and Pat allowed the letters to speak for themselves, but still conveyed the emotion the words often described.
The set is simple as is the staging—a desk, two chairs and some water. But that simple staging forces the audience’s attention to the actors as they read the letters.
The first letters begins at Melissa’s birthday when they were in second grade.
Melissa: I have a lot of Oz books, but not The Lost Princess of Oz. What made you give me that one?
Andy: When you came into second grade with that stuck-up nurse, you looked like a lost princess.
That innocent exchange of letters is the beginning of a lifetime of writing back and forth, and as the couple grow and mature their relationship becomes ever more complex.
They come from the same neighborhood but the differences between them are stark. From the letters Andy is raised in a stable, upper middle-class family; Melissa is rich, but her home life a disaster—her mother marrying multiple times with the implication that she is a heavy drinker.
Melissa sees at an early age that Andy prone to follow the lead of others, too apt to fear going his own way. “I’m enclosing a picture I drew of a dancing bear on a chain. That’s you, Andy. Sometimes I swear.”
Melissa is far more tactile, much more in need of physical sense of an experience; Andy is far more cerebral. When she criticizes him for always wanting to write, he writes back, “I know it sounds jerky, but I like writing, actually. He goes on to say, “My father says everyone should write letters as much as they can…He says letters are a way of presenting yourself in the best possible light to another person. I think that, too.”
Andy’s letters, for all that they are well-written, tell of things and events, but that is not what Melissa wants to know about. “I want to hear more about your feelings,” she tells him.
Buried in one of his longest letters are those feelings and a premonition of what is to come in their lives. Writing that he has to memorize the last five lines of Milton’s Paradise Lost, he writes:
Some Natural Tear they dropp’d, but wip’d them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow.
Through Eden took their solitary way.
That solitary way of each of them is walking are paths with little in common. It is apparent that Melissa is turning increasingly to alcohol and the comfort of whichever boy is available at the moment.
Andy, excelling academically, who believes in family and loyalty, finds his friend’s actions beyond his ken.
There was a disastrous weekend when he was in Yale.
“We didn’t really click, did we; I always had the sense that sense that you were looking over my shoulder, looking for someone else, and ditto with me…What I really think is that there were too many people in that hotel room.”
Melissa writes back, “You know what I think is wrong? These letters…I know you more from your letters the I do in person.”
At Melissa’s suggestion they try talking on the phone, but to Andy, it’s not the same.
“I feel like a true lover when I’m writing you,” he explains, adding later in the letter, ”It’s (a letter) not a telephone call, which is dead as soon as it is over.”
Their paths go in remarkably separate paths—a successful attorney his family life is stable with three children and Andy eventually becomes a US Senator.
She is an artist whose drinking and psychological problems preclude success. In and out of institutions, she loses custody of her children but not her sense of humor.
“I want you to write a special law about vindictive, ex-husbands, banishing them to Lower Slobbovia, forever and ever. Amen.”
It is after a fundraiser that the star-crossed lovers finally cross, and the notes and letters that fly back and forth leave little doubt that the couple is awed at what they have found 40 or 50 years after that first letter was written.
Yet the romance is doomed, its fate preordained by Andy’s public life and loveless marriage. For him there is life after the affair; for her, it’s the lifeline to sanity that she has needed for so long.
“I need you, Andy. You’re my anchor man these days,” she writes.
But his world is focused on getting reelected—he wins in a landslide—and rebuilding the structure of his life.
It is the death knell for Melissa’s sanity and ultimately, her life.
After her passing Andy writes a letter to her mother, and in it, he admits what has been apparent throughout the play. “I don’t think I’ve ever loved anyone the way I loved her, and I know I never will again.”
There’s a bit of a hiatus before the next Bryan Cultural Series performance. February 9, 2019 the ECU Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival Clarinet Quintet will be performing at All Saints Episcopal Church. That will be followed by Clay Jenkinson performing Sir Walter Raleigh and Merriweather Lewis with a third performance that will feature readings from Shakespeare March 25, 26 and 27.