PITTSFIELD — On its surface, A.R. Gurney's "Love Letters" is a love story spanning 50 years, beginning with a birthday party invitation in second grade and ending in late middle age the only way it really can. But this play — which is being given an impeccable production at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage — also is about a love affair with words; with the English language as a vehicle of expression of feelings as well as ideas; with the lost art of letter writing; with communicating in liberating ways that are deeply personal and enduring.
I'm not going to try to make the case that "Love Letters" — which was first performed in 1988 — is the great American play but neither is it a trifle. It is masterly in its craftsmanship and architecture; a delicate, insightfully shaped play — "sort of a play," Gurney says — that tracks the ups and owns in a deeply personal relationship between two people, Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (Mark H. Dold) and Melissa Gardner (Debra Jo Rupp), both raised within the strictures of a privileged white Anglo-Saxon Protestant environment, each headed in different directions over the course of their lives; each never straying far from the anchoring each provides the other; friends, very special friends, with benefits that extend well beyond sex.
From the beginning, Andrew's life seems proscribed — well-educated in private schools and Ivy League college; law school; service in the U.S. navy; marriage to the "right" woman; kids; a job with the "right" law firm in New York leading to a successful career as a U.S. Senator from New York.
Andrew strains, at times, against the class ties that bind him. His very relationship with Melissa is genuine, grounding and profound but it also is an act of defiance. His relationship with a Japanese woman while he is stationed there (a situation Gurney develops in his 1998 play, "The Far East") — does not end well. His own marriage runs into a rocky period and one of his sons begins acting out in troubling ways. His inevitable full-blown affair with Melissa very nearly ruins his political career.
Andrew finds his greatest freedom, his greatest release in writing. "This is just me, me the way I write," he says in one of his letters, "the way my writing is, the way I want to be to you, giving myself to you across a distance, not keeping or retaining any part of it for myself, giving this piece of myself to you totally, and you can tear me up and throw me out, or keep me, and read me today, tomorrow, any time you want until you die."
And in another letter, Andrew reflects on their upbringing. Benefiting from the vantage of time and life experience, he has come to recognize "all those dumb things which were done to us when we were young." The smartest thing he remembers about school is having been made to write. "They didn't make us write particularly well," he writes to Melissa. "And they didn't always give us important things to write about. But they did make us sit down, and organize our thoughts, and convey those thoughts on paper as clearly as we could to another person. Thank God for that. That saved us [from the Land of Oz, he calls it, in which they were raised]. Or at least saved me. So I have to keep writing letters."
Writing does not come as willingly to Melissa, who is more comfortable with immediacy, instant gratification.
In many ways, Melissa is her own worst enemy. She's had plenty of models. Her mother, who, for all intents and purposes, an absentee parent, was an alcoholic; her father was abusive. She broke almost all the rules in school. She has a bad track record when it comes to men and she drifts in and out of alcohol rehab centers and private mental facilities. Her one attempt at marriage goes south and her career as an artist is, at best, checkered. And yet, for all her unease at writing, her protestations, she expresses herself in her letters to Andrew in ways she cannot communicate, verbally, with others in her life. As played by Rupp, she has a devilish, impish, impudent sense of humor. She is honest and direct. Andrew is perhaps the only one in Melissa's life with whom she can be direct. She calls him out on his pretenses with her but he also is a source of strength, a safe harbor.
Dold and Rupp get all this with affecting grace, winning humor and deep understanding. They each age with smooth facility. Together and individually, they skillfully, almiost unassumingly, maintain the delicate blend of ingredients in the complex recipe of Andy and Melissa's relationship.
If you've never seen "Love Letters," I cannot imagine a better introduction. If you have seen "Love Letters" before, well, this production is akin to meeting a dear friend both again and for the first time.