CEDAR CITY — Einstein made the analogy to say that relativity is like the idea that a minute touching something hot may feel like an hour, while an hour with a lovely companion may feel like a minute. In similar fashion, the script of A. R. Gurney’s Love Letters is a retelling of fifty years of love letters between the play’s two characters — Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (played by Clarence Gilyard) and Melissa Gardner (played by Janice Brooks) — which packs all the things fifty years of love and friendship can entail into a whirlwind two hours. However, for me, the plodding pacing and limited movement of the actors on stage made two hours feel like fifty years.
My reaction is due to my expectations of the performance. When I read that this was a tragi-comedy and that director Douglas Hill had described the performance as “immediately engaging,” I expected to be gripped by the stakes of the story and to have laughter and tears intermingled as I left a fulfilling story. After seeing the July 22 matinee, I believe that the script has the power to do just that. The vulnerable hearts of Andrew and Melissa reveal struggles with family, finances, marriage, and the prioritization of their sometimes tepid, sometimes torrid, affair in the scope of their otherwise interesting lives. But the show did not achieve that level of involvement because the production felt like an unprepared afterthought to the SimonFest’s other offerings such as Evita; Man of La Mancha; and Almost, Maine.
Ultimately, a story with two characters who are never in the same room and are simply sending letters presents certain theatrical challenges, as so much of the action and story are implied and delivered through subtext. However the actors rarely even left their chairs during the performance. By my count, Gilyard stood twice, and leaned on the front of his desk once while Brooks stood indignantly a few times and otherwise went nowhere. Both actors were reading from their scripts, which is fine if this is a staged reading or a demonstrated cold read, but often left me feeling as though the actors had not engaged with the script. I truly wondered what Hill’s directing for this production entailed.
This is not to say that the acting was boring or low quality. Other than a few line gaffes, the actors had some powerful line deliveries. In particular, Brooks and Gilyard managed to communicate through their acting the long gaps in correspondence their characters would have from the scene partner. If I had been told to expect that this was two seasoned veterans doing a staged reading or dramatic cold read of the Love Letters script, I would have walked away much more content with the production. However none of the telltale signs of a staged reading were present other than actors with fat scripts in hand.
The staging was pleasant enough, as properties master Nora Asplund was thoughtful in her creation of the writing spaces of both Melissa and Andrew. Melissa’s desk was artsy with flowers, knick knacks, and other accoutrement to make the desk feel homey. Andrew, who becomes a lawyer and senator, had a more robust desk with many a lack of frills, and an abundance of writing materials available. Similarly, the costumes were flattering on the actors, but designer Jaimee Markham has the actors stay in the exact same clothing for fifty years of story, with no deviation in either act.
Ultimately, expectations have a great deal of play for me in this review. I think the actors, in other roles, are impressive professionals who bring much to the table. I think one disappointed reviewer should not derail a directorial career for Hill. However, tickets of this price for what is touted to be a fully mounted production deserve better. If I were seeing Love Letters as a regular patron, and I would be incredibly hesitant to see more shows from this company.
I cannot in good faith recommend seeing Love Letters. It could be that this was simply one show too much for Simon Fest. Mounting a full play takes a lot, and Gilyard and Hill have other prominent roles with the company which may have moved this production down the priority list. Brooks’s bio similarly shows she is an impressive community member who is engaged in many great projects. This review may not read much like a love letter, but it certainly is not hate mail. The Simon Fest’s production of Love Letters simply did not deliver on what I had expected.