Friday, May 23, 2014

Love Letters by A.R.Gurney

Hannah Waterman, Huw Higginson
Love Letters by A.R.Gurney.  Produced by Christine Harris & HIT Productions.  Directed by Denny Lawrence; designer, Jacob Battista; lighting designer, Jason Bovaird.  At The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, May 21 – 24, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 22

The American President Abraham Lincoln wrote: “Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people.”  Love Letters is a quintessentially American play: of Americans, by an American, for Americans.

This production of Love Letters, directed by an Australian, acted by Britons (recently settled in Australia), and presented for Australians, seems to me to miss a key element of American culture: the sentimental nature of the American dream.

A. R. Gurney knew the weakness of his culture, as have all the great American playwrights from Eugene O’Neill onwards.  That’s why his story of the born-rich Melissa Gardner and the self-made ironically-named Andrew Makepeace Lad III turns out to be a tragedy.

Let me make it clear that Hannah Waterman and Huw Higginson understood and created the characters’ deep sense of failure, to the point of still being tearful even as they acknowledged our applause in recognition of their quality acting.

But Denny Lawrence’s approach to directing the play left us feeling that there was something missing.  It began, I think, with the set and lighting design.

Hannah Waterman & Huw Higginson in Love Letters by A.R.Gurney (Photo: Belinda Strodder)

The shiny see-through brightly lit lecterns at which the actors stood, facing front until the very end, with the backdrop of an upright backlit screen in the centre behind them, produced a sense of formality which was at odds with the nature of the letters being written and received by Melissa and Andy throughout their lives from primary school in 1937 to Melissa’s suicide some 50 years later.

Despite the fences and finally the insurmountable barriers – like a thicket of thorns which grows continually wider and higher between them, from their childhood social class division and then the requirements of her life as an artist (whose function is to buck convention) and his as a rising star through Yale, service in the navy, prominence as a lawyer and election as a liberal Republican Senator (whose function is to build on conventions) – in their letters they are their real selves.

Perhaps the most telling, and amusing, episode occurs when Andy’s secretary sends out the standard overblown self-congratulatory Christmas letter from his family (on this occasion written by Andrew, though usually written by his wife Jane), with glowing stories about their three sons’ successes.  Melissa tears into Andy in reply, and he is remorseful in response, telling her the truth about his sons’ bad behaviour.  Maybe we, not just Americans, have received – and perhaps even written – such awful Christmas letters.

Hannah Waterman as Melissa Gardner

Huw Higginson as Andrew Makepeace Lad III
Photos: Belinda Strodder

However the clue to what I think was wrong about the directing is in the letters Andy writes from very early on, even while they were still teenagers, worrying about whether Melissa is OK.  “Are you in trouble?” he writes much later as he realises that her marriage to Darwin, of Wall Street, is just not right for her.  Then there are the intermittent lengthy periods with no communication from her, when his letters become panicky about what’s happening to her.  To me this says that the formal setting of hard, sharp, angular, well-lit edges has to go.  And even more so when she manages to persuade him, and he succeeds in consummating the relationship – unfortunately in the lead-up to his crucial re-election.

Andy may be writing from the office of Andrew Makepeace Lad III, but only his absolutely trustworthy confidential personal secretary is in the know and protects his privacy.  He is not writing while standing at a public lectern.  Melissa is writing in darker and darker places as time goes along, even when she has an exhibition of her paintings – a complete disaster in her eyes.  Andy might be capable of presenting himself at a public event – even speaking at a lectern – despite what’s really happening in his personal life; but not Melissa.

Only after reaching this conclusion did I have a look at YouTube.  It would have been cheating otherwise, since I have never seen a production of Love Letters before. 

At  I found Cleo Holladay and Rex Partington in an excerpt “from A.R. Gurney's Pulitzer Prize winning play.”  You can’t trust YouTube, of course.  Gurney was a finalist for a Pulitzer, but never won.  However the setting and the stage relationship between the actors demonstrates my concern about Lawrence’s production.

Cleo Holladay & Rex Partington (YouTube screenshot)

Partington has Melissa and Andy seated at the same table, side by side and visibly close.  The letters are an animated conversation between the two, as if there is no physical or time separation.  There is no sense of formality or distance.  In Lawrence’s setting I quite liked the backlit screen changing as the seasons changed, and even becoming a stained glass window for Melissa’s funeral, but a softer and more intimate setting would have allowed his actors much more freedom of expression, as they ‘wrote’ and as they ‘read’ each other's letters.

Then the innocent comedy of their young selves would have felt insecure – to us watching, as well as to the actors playing the roles – and the dark shadows would gradually overwhelm Melissa and Andy, and be felt by the audience, until the inevitability of her death could take on the same kind of significance as in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra

Then we would have seen a truly American play – emotionally sentimental, but through the playwright’s eyes, a damnation of the American Dream.