MARCO ISLAND — Before Thursday's performance of "Love Letters," Island Theater Company co-founder Pat Berry mentioned "special moments" she witnessed on opening night. Couples held hands or strolled to the door talking about their own love letters.
As I watched the show, I wondered, "Would A.R. Gurney's masterpiece - a valentine to the English language in every way - even be possible today?"
The woman seated ahead of me had a sleek new BlackBerry out for at least 10 minutes during the first half. Said device re-emerged from her purse seconds after the lights dimmed for Act II. She texted for three minutes then, as well as four additional times within the first six pages of dialogue. Unacceptable.
"Love Letters" for the next millennium will be see its title reduced to an emoticon: "<3" Mark it down. I get royalties.
The takeaway? Enjoy the Island Players version while you can. Walt Willey and Kathleen Gravatt will be there through Sunday. Leave your cell phone in the car. And write a note to someone today.
Willey and Gravatt offer up a particularly strong take on the longtime community theater favorite. The show follows two characters, Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner, over five decades. The characters share lives, love, husbands, heartbreak and more via letters to each other; actors on stage read the pages to each other.
Pat Berry goes beyond the minimalist staging used for most productions of "Love Letters." Instead of the traditional writing tables and business attire, she creates the hint of a set. Gravatt wears a black and gold robe and slippers; her Melissa lounges on a fainting couch adorned with pillows and a sumptuous fur. Tropical plants and rich wall hangings suggest decadence. Result? This lady is trouble.
Willey, hair slick, his navy blue business suit even slicker, sits in an office. Tan panelling slumps into beige carpet. An off-white chair floats underneath a generic orange painting. The too-bright lamp escaped from a Motel 6 in Arizona. Result? This man is no fun.
Willey, a longtime friend of Berry and the Island Theater Company, brings his soap opera star glamour and big personality back to Marco. To compensate, he plays Andy as the world's greatest stiff; the contrast with Gravatt's fiery Melissa amazes.
Each production of "Love Letters" is different; I'm always interested in which specific lines actors will emphasize. I'm a fan of Willey and Gravatt's approach, which leans heavily on the show's humor.
Willey makes Andy too-sensible (but not bland) by giving just enough heart to his speech. With the calm, burnished voice that served Pine Valley's Jackson Montgomery for years, Willey lifts the diffident prose to poetry.
His Andy reveals a stern exterior, righteous anger and a sensitive, caring core. Watch for the tiniest details of Willey's face and hands - experience gained from years of television close-ups.
Within the lightness, Gravatt gives remarkable depth to Melissa's more somber moments. The actress shifts easily from saucy quip to soul-baring revelation. Her wonderfully expressive face and eyes add to the portrayal.
Gravatt's fainting couch should be de rigeur for all future productions of "Love Letters." Gravatt slumps in boredom at Andy's long, boring, long, (did we mention boring?) letter about school, hockey, John Milton and writing letters. She kicks backs with a drink or scrabbles for pills. It just looks fun!
"Love Letters" had one rehearsal before opening Wednesday night. Still, there are a scattering of minor speedbumps I wish the pair could avoid.
Tongue-twisters like "anarchistic" slow the dialogue. The pair pronounce the last name of Andy's would-be paramour "Gretchen Lascelles" three different ways. Hint: It rhymes with "tassels."
Willey swaps words in the handwriting joke on the first page, negating the cheap giggle from "I will try to make longer p's." Other stumbles leave the actors out of breathe in the middle of a sentence, forcing a disjointed emphasis on a random set of words.
No matter. The hiccups aren't deal breakers. Willey and Gravatt love what they're doing - and that communicates itself through Andy and Melissa's love for each other. Even though the seating angles apart, there's a palpable bond of affection between the pair. The show touches hearts, engages minds and hopefully speeds ink-stained fingers along the page as audience members rush to pen "love letters" of their very own.
IF YOU GO
What: A.R. Gurney's touching drama about Andy, Melissa and their shared correspondence
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday & Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Rose History Auditorium at the Marco Island Historical Museum, 180 South Heathwood Dr., Marco Island
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Who wrote you your first love letter? Email me, firstname.lastname@example.org, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.