Duo keeps on sending 'Love Letters' to audiences across Southwest Florida

Carole Fenstermacher and Val Kuffel rehearse for 'Love Letters,' the A.R. Gurney play. 'Love Letters' plays one night only at 7 p.m. Thursday, February 23 at the Art League of Bonita Springs performance space in #114 at the Promenade of Bonita Bay. Tickets are $20 for Art League members and $25 for non-members. Call (239) 495-8989.

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Carole Fenstermacher and Val Kuffel rehearse for "Love Letters," the A.R. Gurney play. "Love Letters" plays one night only at 7 p.m. Thursday, February 23 at the Art League of Bonita Springs performance space in #114 at the Promenade of Bonita Bay. Tickets are $20 for Art League members and $25 for non-members. Call (239) 495-8989.

"Love Letters" plays one night only at 7 p.m. Thursday, February 23 at the Art League of Bonita Springs performance space in #114 at the Promenade of Bonita Bay. Tickets are $20 for Art League members and $25 for non-members. Call (239) 495-8989.

— Carole Fenstermacher and Val Kuffel have performed A.R. Gurney's touching "Love Letters" more than 30 times. The show details a 50-year correspondence between two characters - all told through the written word. Seven years on, they're still finding nuances to the material.

"February 23 will be our fifth production," Fenstermacher said. "Boy, I remember the first occasion like it was yesterday. Seven years ago to the month. We were so nervous about whether there would be an audience!"

An audience turned up then. And every time since. Thursday, the pair will appear at 7 p.m. at the Promenade at Bonita Bay, in a show presented by the Art League of Bonita Springs.

A.R. Gurney writes plays about the upper-class WASPs of upstate New York, mainly the Buffalo area. In "Love Letters," he follows the five-decade relationship between Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III as told through letters, cards and notes.

"The thing that amazes me is that the vehicle that ties 'Love Letters' together is written correspondence," Fenstermacher said. "Almost no one writes letters anymore, and yet even in this electronic age, people understand the premise."

Actors usually sit at tables and read the play to the audience - as if they're reading Andy and Melissa's letters. Not memorizing lines can make the play an attractive vehicle for high-profile guest stars. Oscar winner Eva Marie Saint and Jeffrey Hayden will even hit through the Philharmonic for four performances in mid-March.

Kuffel and Fenstermacher ditch the table, preferring to face the audience and form a more intimate connection - one the actors already have from their long partnership.

"We seem to know each other very well. Both as persons and also as actors," Kuffel said.

The play follows Andrew and Melissa from childhood through adolescence, college, into adulthood and beyond. While true love isn't always easy, the simple sentences that Gurney crafts can be heartbreaking to listen to - and to experience.

"It's true to life," Fenstermacher said. "There are so many nuances, that almost everyone can find something to relate to. The audience picks up on who they are and what their conflicts are from the get-go."

Kuffel believes that audiences can relate to Andrew and Melissa, because "they've experienced most of the experiences in the letters or have watched others in similar situations."

"Most of the things they write about we have experienced in our own lives," he said. "Maybe not exactly the same situations but similar enough to relate."

The pair continue to find things to explore in the show.

"Every time I do the show or read the script there are extra layers of the script that come alive," Kuffel said. "A word, or a line, or a pause finally seems to make sense. Every reading is a little bit different."

Careful not to give away the ending, both will reveal that they love play's final moments.

"I love the end of the play," Kuffel said. "It comes full circle and as many times as I've done it, I still get all choked up. The realization of 'what might have been' ... we all do that."

Fenstermacher agrees.

"Melissa knows ... that Andy is going to keep every single note that she has sent him," she said. "For all she detested the written word, it is what kept their love alive over the years. We see that unfold. As Val says, neither of us gets through this play without choking up."

"Love Letters" plays one night only at 7 p.m. Thursday, February 23 at the Art League of Bonita Springs performance space in #114 at the Promenade of Bonita Bay. Tickets are $20 for Art League members and $25 for non-members. Call (239) 495-8989.

Eva Marie Saint and Jeffrey Hayden will headline four performances of a touring production of "Love Letters" at the Naples Philharmonic at 3 p.m. & 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 17 and Sunday, March 18. Tickets are $45.

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