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  • 'Love Letters': Austere yet poignant

  • REVIEW — A.R. Gurney's "Love Letters" is a stage version of the epistolary novel, in which a story is told through a series of letters.
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  • A.R. Gurney's "Love Letters" is a stage version of the epistolary novel, in which a story is told through a series of letters.
    The notes, cards and letters, read by two actors, reveal the lives of the two characters, Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, from childhood into old age and beyond.
    The production of the play that opened Thursday night at Theatre Convivio in Ashland shows that in this thin but oddly potent work, casting is everything, because the play consists simply of the actors sitting side by side and reading the letters. Each has a chair, a small table and a lamp. A dark curtain upstage is the only background and serves to highlight the actors in their pools of light.
    The characters are played by veteran actors Dee Maaske, a native of Maryland who has performed all over the United States and Europe (including many memorable roles in her years at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival), and Jon Cypher, who is perhaps best known for his eight-year stint as police Chief Fletcher Daniels in TV's "Hill Street Blues."
    Cypher was born in New York City and has acted on Broadway and in numerous movies and TV series since his 1957 debut in "Prince Charming," opposite Julie Andrews.
    "Love Letters" remains popular a quarter of a century after it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama. That's probably because it's not the sappy romance suggested by the title — which is ironic on one level, but ultimately not — but a psychologically realistic, bittersweet story.
    It's been done on and off Broadway by such pairs as Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards, Timothy Hutton and Elizabeth McGovern, Swoosie Kurtz and Richard Thomas, Elaine Stritch and Cliff Robertson, Robert Wagner and Jill St. John, Sigourney Weaver and Jeff Daniels, Elizabeth Taylor and James Earl Jones.
    It's hard to picture any being more believable than Maaske and Cypher, each of whom seems to inhabit a uniquely compelling character.
    A thought may occur to you as the two begin reading the letters their characters receive from each other as children: Is this it? There's no movement, no action, no blocking, nothing happening and no present for it to happen in.
    But one is quickly grabbed by, and then swept along by, the life pulsing in the letters. Andy and Melissa, both from privilege, meet in second grade and quickly begin a correspondence to continue their oddball friendship when they're both sent off to boarding schools.
    This is a world before texting and Skyping, a world of fountain pens, typewriters, public telephones and liberal Republicans. The youngsters' letters are full of childish things: parents, school, parties, poison ivy, curiosity about sex.
    Melissa is bright, sardonic, impulsive, flip, a bit of a rebel. Andy is earnest, smart, athletic, naive, dutiful, a bit of a stuffed shirt. On this level, they are already the people they will become.
    In the second act, Melissa's arc includes study in Italy, mixed success as an artist, marriage and failure, psychoanalysis, alcoholism, rehab, pills. Andy's includes Yale, the U.S. Navy, Harvard Law, a powerful New York firm, big-time politics and its preoccupation with image.
    Romance is an undercurrent that rears its head early and again here and there as life rolls on, but for the most part, these two are ships passing in the night. As the characters are knocked around by various winds, their relationship on paper is a sort of touchstone for each.
    In the end there's the bittersweet sense of life as a fleeting thing, and perhaps the memory of Whittier's line about sad words of tongue or pen: "The saddest are these: 'It might have been!'"‰"
    "Love Letters," directed by Richard Heller, plays at 8 tonight and 2 p.m. Sunday at Theatre Convivio at the Bellview Grange Stage, 1050 Tolman Creek Road, Ashland. See www.theatreconvivio.com.
    Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.
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