Review: “Love Letters”

After seeing Love Letters at the Indiana Repertory Theatre on Friday night, it is clear to see why playwright A.R. Gurney is a highly decorated author. Another apparent fact: Janet Allen can easily channel her larger than life charm into a focused and tightly directed romantic comedy with all the right elements. Love Letters, on the upper stage of the Indiana Repertory Theatre through January 16, 2010, is a wonderful examination of the power of writing and a succinct presentation of a roller coaster relationship.

In her “Director’s Notes,” Allen speaks to the importance of letter writing at the heart of this play. In the modern world “letter writing is practically extinct” and “holding a pen for any amount of time is a foreign sensation to many people,” says Allen. Her director’s mind is immediately drawn to the questions that arise, when presenting a play about letter writing to today’s high tech society. Early in the play, Andrew Makepeace remarks in one of his letters, “…letters are a way of presenting yourself in the best possible light to another person.” Rather than taking this statement at face value, Janet Allen digs deeper to discover if letter writing is a revealing practice, or a one that hides the true self (the one that does not always say or do what is right, the one that cannot be edited during daily conversation). Again and again this theme comes to the forefront of the stage, revealing the director’s own strengthes.

Janet Allen places the subtext of A.R. Gurney’s play and each character’s various letters center stage, between two contrasting ottomans. She invites the audience to interact directly with all the jealousy, lust, anger, envy and more experienced by Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace III in their letters. Her power as a director would make a good superpower. She not only touches on emotions we find it hard to describe; Allen plucks them right out of the script, rolls them around in her palms and makes something more beautiful of them than we knew was possible. But the director is only as good as her actors, and Janet Allen definitely stacked her hand for this two-hander on the IRT’s upper stage.

Priscilla Lindsay (as Melissa Gardner) is transformed. Not by costumes or makeup, but by her commitment to the part. Lindsay has been on stage at the IRT in a myriad of roles from Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice to Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath to Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman and even the prudish and disciplined Sister Aloysius in Doubt. But as Melissa Gardner, Lindsay shows range and her ability to break free from matriarchal roles. In her notes, Allen comments that Lindsay is perfect for this part. Indeed at times, Gurney seems to have written the part of Melissa Gardner to match up with Priscilla Lindsay’s own vocal intonations and sense of humor.

She is at once a frivolous young Melissa Gardner, then shifts before our eyes to tackle the darker undertones of this character’s emotional life. Lindsay deftly moves the audience along with her as her character makes dangerous decisions. As the imperfect product of the modern era, Melissa Gardner is a feeling, talking, drinking, divorced ball of psychoanalyzed emotion. Lindsay pulls off the spoiled WASP trapped in a bottle of self despair. When she desperately hangs her hopes on an old flame (or is it her one true love), you leap with her into the great unknown of that decision. In the span of two hours, your emotional success becomes tied to Melissa Gardner’s emotional success, a feat Lindsay should be very proud of.

Patrick Clear returns to the IRT’s stage after appearing as Jefferson Davis in The Heavens Are Hung in Black earlier this season. Clear was a perfect match for Lindsay’s Gardner, and a star in his own right. My father was a product of the same mid-century New England standards that Andrew Makepeace III is subjected to. Clear pulls off being pulled in every direction perfectly. He is striking as the boy Makepeace, giving himself room to grow from the confused adolscent invited to a girl’s birthday party to the dashing Senator hiding an illicit affair. His character makes some decisions that would likely land him on the cover of a tabloid magazine or as the subject of nightly news gossip. Despite this, you do not fault him as you would a real life adulterating Senator, perhaps because Clear’s performance makes Makepeace genuinely likable from beginning to end.

But Patrick Clear brings so much more to the table. Clear plays his story as universal. The decisions Makepeace makes are ones that everyone faces at some point. Because you root for Clear as Makepeace, you root for yourself. And when his character falters, you forgive him as you would eventually forgive yourself (hopefully). Gurney’s script charts a real course for each character from childhood to adulthood. With moments of success and celebration immediately replaced by moments of depression and failure, Love Letters links up with your own emotional livelihood (with a wink and a smile, of course).

The IRT’s production of Love Letters features another silent star on stage. The backdrop to the story is a large replica of a Renoir, which lives at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The IMA painting ties the play the Hoosier heartland. One of the most lovely things about the Indiana Repertory Theatre is their understanding of theatre as a local event. In Renior’s Sketch after Danse à Bougival, a man is held in a constant state of rebuff as he holds a young woman in his arms. A painting in the Circle City that connects with the a story of near misses and hits also creates a network of Indianapolis arts organizations that send business to each other. A great marketing idea for these Indianapolis nonprofit organizations!

The IRT is full of great marketing ideas lately. For their production of Love Letters, they are offering an ambassadors program. After each show, ushers will be standing by to hand you $10.00 off coupons for you to share with your friends. This FREE stocking stuffer is good for $10.00 off up to four tickets. If you go and like the show, be sure to grab some coupons so your friends and family can share in Indianapolis theatre in 2010.

The IRT is an important part of Indianapolis culture and their latest production proves their value one-hundred-fold! As the lights went down and Love Letters began to draw me in; as the audience began to respond audibly to the story on stage, and as two seasoned actors hit their stride to have some real fun, a bond was forged (albeit for a short time). In the span of two hours, a connection between performer and audience was made in the short distance from my knees to the edge of the stage. Theatre magic was occurring right before my eyes (can you believe it?). It must be a holiday miracle. Or should we chalk it up to Janet Allen’s super powers as director? Find out for yourself at Love Letters on stage at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.

Love Letters
Now through January 16, 2010

Indiana Repertory Theatre
140 W Washington St
Indianapolis, IN 46204

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