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.
"Hi Andy." "Hi Melissa." And so it begins. Audiences enjoyed a fifty-year love story as told by cards, letters, notes and all manner of correspondence Thursday night. Carole Fenstermacher and Val Kuffel regaled a crowd with A.R. Gurney's touching, emotional "Love Letters."
Gurney, who dissects the lives of upper-class WASPS in the Buffalo, New York region, devised an entire play told through the letters exchanged between Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner. Actors sit before the audience and read the script - which starts in childhood and ends more than 50 years later - to a crowd that hangs on every word of Andy and Melissa's "will they, won't they, oh-my-God-they-did" romance.
Fenstermacher and Kuffel have turned the show into something of a specialty after they met in a Naples Players production of "All My Sons" about 8 years ago. Thursday's performance in the Art League of Bonita Springs theater at the Promenade at Bonita Bay was their fifth in the past several years.
Gurney sets up his Andrew as a prim, proper "play it as it lays" type - a "make peace, lad." Thus, Melissa Gardner becomes the "sow her wild oats" character. More than two hours zip by as the titanic tennis match of correspondence goes back and forth between the two: "Did you get my letter?"; "Dear Andy," "Dear Melissa," "Much love," "Did you let so-and-so make out with after we had cocoa at the rector's!!
Fenstermacher and Kuffel add a variety of touches to their interpretation that give depth and context to the show. Even while one character "writes" a letter - the other reacts, especially Fenstermacher's Melissa, who pouts, squirms and fidgets in her chair throughout the evening. Whereas Andy likes to write, Melissa hates it - and demands he "call her on the telephone."
They've even started dressing the part. Kuffel starts the show in a patterned vest, like something a prep school boy would wear (his character winds up at Exeter), while Fenstermacher plops into her chair in bohemian outfit.
For the second half, which sees Andrew Makepeace Ladd III enter the navy and eventually politics, Kuffel dons a suit, tie and jacket - and sits ramrod straight in his chair. Fenstermacher's Gardner - who becomes an artist and takes a more ... indirect career path ... dances on stage with a saucy red jacket over her black gown and plonks a martini glass down on the desk between the two (instead of the usual water glass).
Gurney's pretzel of a script does spend an exorbitant amount of energy pushing the characters together - then pulling them apart, especially during their teenage years. The actors let their characters voice that - changing inflection, showing longing and giving rise to the passion in their lives.
The show - while certainly a romance that will make anyone believe in love - brims with hidden gems of humor buried in the script. Gurney's keenly sliced observations about life - especially as delivered by two talented, witty and winning actors - bring whoops of laughter as audience members recognize themselves.
The show also serves as a "love letter" to the written word. Gurney spends passages simply describing the act of writing, giving over lush verbiage in some of Andy's letters to how he loves holding an old ink pen or putting words on paper.
Both actors reinforce their performances with the impression that their characters would have saved every scrap of paper the other sent over the years - right down to the last, touching notes.
Kuffel and Fenstermacher - even after diving into the material for years - are still finding nuances. Watching them rediscover Andy and Melissa - and their love story - makes for an amazing journey.
One other note: The Art League of Bonita Springs performance space, located in #114 at the Promenade at Bonita Springs was roasting inside Thursday, even though it was a fairly balmy night. Patrons (including me) sweated buckets and fanned themselves with programs throughout the nearly sold-out performance.
If you attend performances there, dress as lightly as possible, take your seats at the last possible moment and request seating near the back of the theater or near the bar and away from the stage lights.