Bay's 'Love Letters' is a touching Valentine's Day performance

For this Valentine's season, the folks at Bay Theatre are offering A. R. Gurney's 1989 off-beat near-classic, "Love Letters." This two-person play is ideally suited to Bay's intimate space, as well as its intention of extending the Valentine season through March 4.

Contemporary playwright Gurney describes his work as, "a sort of play which needs no theater, no lengthy rehearsal, no special set, no memorization of lines and no commitment from its two actors beyond the night of performance."

"It is designed simply to be read aloud by an actor and an actress of roughly the same age, sitting side by side at a table," he said.

Despite its unusual form, Gurney's "Love Letters" has become a fundraising staple, used by such film luminaries as Lynn Redgrave, Jason Robards and Elizabeth Taylor for their favorite causes. More recently, and closer to home, Anne Arundel Community College began celebrating its 50th anniversary in September by featuring faculty members in this show as a scholarship fundraiser. Now Bay Theatre takes on what artistic director Janet Luby terms a "wonderful chestnut."

Bay Theatre's production boasts a set designed by Ken Sheats featuring soft, wine-colored velvet draperies, matching upholstered chairs and a Moe Hanson sketch prominently displayed on the back wall.

With this set, director Alan Wade creates the ideal frame for two loving friends who reveal their life stories in a play that traces both lives through their correspondence spanning more than 50 years.

Real-life husband and wife Nigel Reed and Valerie Leonard appear in this season's third production. Reed, winner of a Helen Hayes Award, is an established Bay favorite, most recently seen as Steve in "Becky's New Car" and as Dr. Framingham in last season's "Beyond Therapy." Now, as Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, Reed offers what may be his most compelling Bay performance to date.

Leonard, playing Melissa Gardner, was last seen on Bay's stage in "Picnic" a few seasons back. She has appeared in national tours, including a run as Gwendolyn Pigeon in "The Odd Couple" with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. Her many D.C. credits include Shakespeare Theatre Company, Arena Stage, Signature Theatre and Roundhouse, among others.

Gurney's recitation of letters traces the friendship of two privileged New England WASPs from their meeting in second grade through high school, college, careers and marriages. Melissa is the free-spirited, rebellious daughter of divorced parents whose wealth enables her to pursue art studies in Florence and Paris. Her wealth can buy her the best schools and best hotels, but not quite the best of everything. Her talent for art languishes and her two marriages fail; only her relationship with Andy endures to provide sustaining value.

Unfailingly and outrageously honest with Andy, Melissa accuses him of slavishly following the dictates of his father, becoming stuffy and not daring to discover the depths of their relationship. Andy is ambitious to realize his life's goals, achieving them as a respected family man and father of three sons, and as a U.S. senator.

Having seen "Love Letters" performed by less competent actors standing before lecterns to read their lines, I approached Bay's production aware of the limitations of this sometimes static, minimalist work. In past performances, I had felt little empathy for moneyed WASPs Melissa and Andy.

Because of the combined efforts of director and set designer and the talents of actors Reed and Leonard, I found Bay's "Love Letters" engrossing theater. I also gained new appreciation of playwright Gurney's skill in reflecting his generation's aspirations and his adroit use of prevalent slang, including the 1950s "hubba-hubba" and the early psychobabble of the 1980s.

Leonard creates a Melissa who is intensely alive, addressing Andy with fierce honesty, demanding that he experience life fully. Leonard is a vital force when her Melissa reacts to Andy's words with a series of facial expressions, sometimes flinging her hands in exasperation at Andy's self-deception. Leonard makes us care deeply about Melissa's failures to sustain her marriages, difficulty relating to her children and inability to forge a career as an artist. Dramatic pauses become intolerable as she awaits Andy's mailed responses, and our concern grows when she reveals her desperate neediness.

Perfectly matched, Leonard and Reed intuitively respond to each other's thoughts as expressed by the characters. Reed brings substance to every word, signaling the depth of emotion hidden below Andy's calm, controlled exterior. He seems tp find the character of Andy beneath layers of his own persona that seem courageously stripped away.

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