PITTSFIELD — Playwright A.R. Gurney, Jr. describes his "Love Letters" as "a sort of a play, which needs no theater, no lengthy rehearsal, no special set, no memorization of lines, and no commitment from its two actors beyond the night of performance."
Including this weekend's previews, Barrington Stage Company's production of "Love Letters" has six nights and two afternoons of performances. BSC veteran actors Mark H. Dold and Debra Jo Rupp are committed to all of them.
The production is scheduled to run through Oct. 2, beginning with previews Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Press opening is 3 p.m. Sunday.
Barrington Stage founding artistic director Julianne Boyd is directing.
"There is a great freedom in doing this," Dold said over an early lunch in a joint interview with his acting partner. "It's like the best part of the rehearsal process, when you just try things out, see how things work, ping-pong back and forth exchanging ideas. And doing it with Debra Jo, well, I can't imagine doing this with anyone else. We trust each other implicitly."
"This is so well-written and vibrant," Rupp added. "Doing this production is like coming home. Other than a voiceover Mark recorded for 'Dr. Ruth,' we haven't worked together since we danced together in [BSC's production of Jean Anouilh's] 'Ring Round the Moon' in 2006."
That this production came about at all was a matter of chance; a quirk in the universe.
It was offered initially as an auction item two years ago as a Barrington Stage fundraiser — Dold and Rupp doing "Love Letters" in the comfort of the winning bidder's home. The winning bidder turned out to be BSC chairwoman Mary Ann Quinson. Nearly 100 people showed up at her New York apartment for the reading.
"It was a perfect night," Rupp said. "It went very well."
Fast forward to now. According to Rupp, Boyd was looking for something different to do at BSC between the end of the summer schedule and the opening of the fall production.
"We came up with this," Rupp said.
First produced at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn. in November 1988, Gurney's "sort of a play" traces the relationship between freewheeling Melissa Gardner and a somewhat up-tight, play-by-the-rules Andrew Makepeace III through their exchange of letters over 50 years, beginning with a birthday party invitation in second grade. Melissa relentlessly assaults the strictures of her suburban, privileged, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant upbringing while Andrew is continually bound by those same structures. Theirs is a complex, deeply affecting relationship buffeted by pressures of time, personal weaknesses, circumstance, history.
Rupp feels a particular kinship with Melissa.
"I grew up in New England," she said. "My high school graduation party was a mother-daughter tea. I just know who this character is."
"I grew up in a very straitlaced family in which I was expected to behave a certain way, date certain girls, be seen but not heard," Dold said. "There was a company line from which you couldn't stray yet I always wanted to break that boundary."
"Melissa acts out," Rupp said, "but the truth is that she's desperate for security."
"I think what they need is each other's experience," Dold said. "Andrew needs a little rock-and-roll; she needs security."
Rupp and Dold see, and appreciate, the method in Gurney's madness — little, if any, rehearsal; no line memorization. Gurney even asks actors not to look at one another during the performance, until, perhaps, the end. "They listen eagerly and actively to each other along the way," Gurney writes in his accompanying author's note for the script, "much as we might listen to an urgent voice on a one-way radio, coming from far, far away."
The idea, Dold and Rupp agree, is to keep the experience fresh for the actors and, consequently, audiences, as if these letters were being read for the first time; charting, in the process, a "voyage of discovery," Dold says, for the actors and for audiences. Dold and Rupp say they will not go back and re-read their scripts between shows.
"This is a series of letters. You have to be in the moment," Rupp said.
"In this play, life jumps out at you on a page," Dold said. "So you just say the words. They will guide us and the audience on a journey.
"The simplicity, just two people, two tables, two chairs, on a stage, is essential here. It's up to the audience to fill in the blanks. Who knows what they will see from what they hear."
What: "Love Letters" by A.R. Gurney Jr. Directed by Julianne Boyd
Who: Barrington Stage Company
Where: St. Germain Stage, Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield
When: Now through Oct. 2 (press opening Sunday afternoon at 3). Evenings — Thursday through Saturday at 7:30. Matinees — Sunday at 3
How: (413) 236-8888; barringtonstageco.org; in person at box office — 30 Union St., Pittsfield