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If you have been reading these reviews of mine for very long, then you know I have a very soft spot in my heart for Reader's Theatre. That's because it is theatre stripped down to the very basics: no set, no props, no costumes, just actors, script in hand, using their voices and their souls to convey the very essence of storytelling. A wonderful example recently in Chapel Hill was PRC's presentation of A Christmas Carol, using just one actor. NRACT's It's a Wonderful Life Radio Play is another. It's been around as long as theatre has, maybe longer, and it can take you places you'd never dream.
Which brings us to the current production by the North Carolina Theatre, A. R. Gurney's Love Letters. Gurney wrote Love Letters as a Readers Theatre piece, and for a very specific reason. He wanted to get down to the heart and soul of his two characters, without the trappings of set and costumes and make-up. NCT's production uses the most basic of "sets," two simple, identical tables and chairs, two lecterns for scripts, and two exceptional veteran actors. The only other nod to actual "staging" was a plain blue backdrop. Those in the audience aware enough to notice will tell you the backdrop changed colors according to the moment's mood.
NCT has chosen for the role of Melissa Gardner an actress probably known by everyone in the country, Sandy Duncan. Duncan has a career that spans decades and covers roles for the stage, film, and television. She has even starred in a play she wrote herself, Free Fall, at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. She is no stranger to Raleigh, either; she and her husband, Don Correia, have performed their own show, Together, with symphonies across the country, including the North Carolina Symphony.
Joining Duncan onstage in the role of (are you ready for this?) Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, is a man known to everyone who loves theatre in Raleigh, Ira David Wood III. In addition to helming the Raleigh landmark Theatre in the Park since its inception, he has also starred in an annual production of his own musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which just closed its 43rd season! Wood has accumulated television and screen credits, starring with actors such as James Earl Jones, Natalie Wood, Burt Reynolds, and Neil Patrick Harris.
Wood and Duncan took their places opening night to enthusiastic applause, and once it subsided, Wood opened the show with his very first letter, written to Melissa's mom, accepting an invitation to her daughter's birthday party. They were in second grade. Wood was decked out in a suit with a sweater vest, a nod to Andy's father, who was a deciding factor in Andy's decision to go into politics, culminating in tenure as a U.S. Senator. Duncan was dressed in the style of Reader's Theatre, all in black, with a spectacular gold pendant to set it off.
From the first words they uttered, we were rapt. Over the course of two full hours and spanning the lifetimes of Melissa and Andy, these two held a full house at the Fletcher Opera Theater with little more than their voices and facial expressions. It was glorious. Gurney's script leads the two all over the world, separately of course, as they told each other of their triumphs, their tragedies, their loves and marriages, their children, and most of all, their own secret thoughts. These letters, which Andy insists are important, truly are love letters, despite the fact that they spend most of their adult years apart. The fact that neither of them realizes it until the end of the show is part and parcel of this bittersweet script.
Gurney brings the show to a close with Andy writing another letter to Melissa's mom, just as he had done to open the show. As soon as he had concluded, the audience was on their feet. Thunderous and rowdy applause rang out for several minutes as we voiced our pleasure at what we had witnessed.
Gurney wrote Love Letters as a love letter to the stage, and that aspect of the show is not lost on the players. These two consummate actors, whose combined talents span a century, did this script proud, and made an indelible impression on their audience that will be remembered for a very long time. I urge you to call and get your tickets now, because this show, despite an extended run, will sell out.
Love Letters continues through Sunday, January 21. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.