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Theater Reveiw : A Mixed Bag of ‘Love Letters’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters” is one of those plays that can be seen over and over. Gurney, the chronicler of the WASP world and its insular inhabitants, has created a simple little entertainment that is quite universal, about half a century’s worth of correspondence between childhood sweethearts who could never quite get together later.

The two-character play usually takes place at an ornate table, behind which the actors sit and read their letters, from Andy’s invitation to Melissa’s first-grade birthday party, to his touching letter to her mother years later.

In this production at the Vanguard Theatre, director Todd Crabtree has accommodated his setting (evocatively designed by Lara Hanneman) to the arena space by using two small desks, with the actors facing each other. The only problem with this setup is that some of the audience loses the advantage of seeing the expressions on one actor’s face. And it is their faces and words that provide the action, the drama and the comedy of Andy and Melissa’s correspondence.

As usual in productions of “Love Letters,” the actors vary at each performance. At Sunday’s performance, Melissa was played by Debbie Grattan, and Andy by director Crabtree.

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Part of the fun, and the heartbreak, is watching Melissa and Andy grow up, from their privileged childhood to Andy’s prominence as a Republican senator and Melissa’s downward flight. That panorama is captured beautifully by Grattan, with subtle changes slowly infringing on her reading as Melissa matures, becomes self-sufficient and productive, then begins to crumble as a victim of her background.

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Crabtree’s Andy is not so rich. Perhaps it’s the old problem of an actor directing himself that hasn’t allowed him to find the shadings that would give fullness and depth to his characterization. His high school Lothario is on the same note as his middle-aged senator and his rebellious naval lieutenant. A staple reading that never really comes to life.

Both will repeat the roles later in the run with other members of the company; there are 19 Melissas and Andys.

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* “Love Letters,” Vanguard Theatre, 699A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Jan. 29. $12-$14. (714) 526-8007. Running time: 1 hours, 50 minutes. Debbie Grattan: Melissa

Todd Crabtree: Andrew

A Vanguard Theatre Ensemble production of A.R. Gurney’s comedy drama. Directed by Todd Crabtree. Produced by Scott Bauer. Scenic design: Lara Hanneman. Lighting design: John R. Vasquez. Sound design: Bradley Enochs. Stage manager: Teresa Melinda.


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