Steppenwolf Theatre

Bard of WASP anguish, chronicler of WASP decline, A.R. Gurney makes a practice of taking genteel WASP traditions and showing them go genteelly haywire. He did it to the art of dining in The Dining Room. He did it to party giving in The Perfect Party. He did it to the cocktail hour in The Cocktail Hour. Guess what he does it to in Love Letters.

An epistolary play, Love Letters celebrates the ritual, the fantasy, the dignity, the intimacy, the sensual pleasure of old-fashioned longhand letter writing, while at the same time recording the lives of a pair of correspondents. It charts the fate of two old-money, eastern-seaboard rich kids–Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner–from a childhood birthday party in 1937, through boarding school and college, to marriage, middle age, and a death 50 years later, tracing their on-again, off-again romance; their process of growing apart and growing together and ultimately becoming themselves.

Or failing to do so. Feeling pressure to assume the vaunted responsibilities of privilege, Andy Ladd continually makes good-boy choices that get him a seat in the United States Senate but deny him a wider experience, a fuller realization of his heart’s capacity. Melissa, meanwhile, takes a fairly direct career track from broken, alcoholic home life to broken, alcoholic adulthood–with only a minor but hopeful digression into painting along the way.

The letters that pass between Andy and Melissa illuminate these failures, and even seem at times to contribute to them. Andy says that writing allows him to become his best self: “I love writing my parents because then I become the ideal son,” he tells Melissa. “I love writing essays for English, because then I am for a short while a true scholar. . . . I feel like a true lover when I’m writing you.” But he doesn’t seem to realize that these dreams of perfection are evasions as well; that they can be acts of cowardice, giving him a way to blow off steam–blow off alternate selves–so as to keep his most acceptable, public self in line and out of trouble.

But if Andy doesn’t realize it, at least Gurney does. Gurney’s got a peculiar genius for depicting the tension between the forms of the WASP way of life and the actual lives defined by those forms. He’s good at showing how traditions can simultaneously preserve and embalm people.

Even so, I’ve never really liked Gurney’s plays–mainly because they render WASP forms, lives, and tensions in such overblown terms. I mean, who cares if, as in The Cocktail Hour, the artsy scion of a dead evolutionary line can’t talk to his idiotic father? And who cares if a couple of poor little rich kids like Andy and Melissa can’t find happiness between Washington and the cape? Fifteen minutes on the subject might be bearable, but a full evening’s disquisition seems–as the better people say–a bit much.

Love Letters provides the perfect formal solution to this problem: composed entirely of letters and performed, casually, by a pair of actors sitting at a table with scripts in front of them, its easy presentation takes the bloat out of Gurney’s subject matter and leaves the drama. The personalities, the pain and humor. This thing is genuinely charming.

All the more so because the actors in the current Steppenwolf production will be changing off from time to time throughout the run. I saw Tom Irwin and Laurie Metcalf, and they were very fine. Metcalf, especially, gave a distinct life to Melissa. You’ll probably be seeing someone else, which will also be fine. Built light, Love Letters is nevertheless amazingly durable.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.