A sentimental slip into time gone by with romantic notions, heart-breaking sorrow, and a great bond between two friends is the charming tale you will find in The Bay Theatre Company’s production of Love Letters. Two actors: one male, one female, hundreds of letters that cover the intimate details of their lives, their friendships, their struggles, their relationship, capturing 50 years of two people through simple words on paper. Director Alan Wade brings a stunning production of this burgeoning classic to the stage with breath-taking moments of joy, heart-stopping moments of sorrow, and gut-bursting moments of laughter. Wade transforms what could be a rather dull reading of letters between two characters and creates a masterpiece of intimacy and develops a world of moments that passed and moments that could have been all through the words of these two characters’ written correspondence.
To better frame the romantic notions and intimate details of these letters – Set Designer Ken Sheats uses a basic setting – two decadent armchairs upholstered with red printed fabric and maroon drapes softening the edges of the scene. These colors draw forth a feeling of passion and sometimes complication creating the perfect backdrop for letter reading as the two actors sit side by side but are clearly in their own worlds.
Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (Nigel Reed) and Melissa Gardner (Valerie Leonard) spend 50 years growing together and apart in their letters. Reed and Leonard take this show to a dynamic level so far above its staged intention. Letters are simply meant to be read – but these actors pull words from pages and breathe a vibrant life into them making the more than just words – making them stories, and feelings, and moments of emotional outbursts that connect to the audience on a much deeper level than just words on paper. Their letters start from a young age and both Reed and Leonard easily adapt to the jovial tender quirks of youths with pens. Their voices are distinct and childish – their expressions radiate the immature responses to things they cannot believe they are reading. And as their characters grow older and move on through life the actors shift their voices, postures and responses accordingly.
Nigel Reed has a soothing voice laced with hints of emotion when reading his letters. His character remains calm and collected throughout the performance and even in those moments where he struggles to reach his letter writing partner his face always masks his troubles with the calm cool notions of a man whose life is in control. Reed is an amazement to watch and will bring tears to your eyes on more than one occasion throughout the production. He well matched in his energy levels and physical reactions in his partner Valerie Leonard. She creates a spastic character in Melissa Gardner, living the wild levels of life through her eyes and priceless facial expressions. Every response is a heightened experience from Leonard and there are moments where she has the audience laughing so hard you almost can’t hear Reed’s response. A true queen of comedy and madness in this production.
Together they create a dynamic duo upon the stage – each letter like a stepping stone in their helter-skelter relationship. Perhaps the funniest moment comes when Reed is reading his rather smug family Christmas letter and with every new announcement Leonard’s eyes bug out of her head, she throws her arms up in exasperation, etc., etc., until she finally flops forward out of the chair and almost lands on the floor in comical disgust. This moment is matched by their need to outdo each other when sending letters from all around the globe. They boast with dramatic gestures and expressions of each new worldly location in a fierce but fun competitive style; a laughable experience.
There is raw truth in Leonard and Reed’s performances; both actors respond to each other with the sense of fresh discovery as if this were the very first time they were hearing each other’s letters. They react and listen to one another intently; creating that reality of their characters to a level of believability that is astonishing. Leonard is the scene stealer having spontaneous emotional outbursts, most of which are silent, during Reed’s letter reading. Her face displays multiple levels of deep seeded emotions which extend through her body into every shift she makes in her chair.
The pair creates heart-warming and heart-wrenching moments of nostalgia that are so clear you’ll believe you had lived these moments once upon a time. And the dramatic pauses when Reed sends letter after letter to Leonard or vice versa and the other does not respond are truly tense. Emotion builds up in these desperate moments of silence and captivates the audience.
This creation is an amazing artistic approach to life, love, and letter writing; two extremely talented people sharing the depth of words on a page with an audience. It should not be missed this season.
Running Time: Two hours with one intermission.