The set looked unassuming, nearly bleak, Tuesday night at the Winspear. Front and center, a light oak table with two matching Windsor chairs faced the audience. On each chair rested a simple, golden cushion, and on each side of the table sat a glass of water. At each place there was an open book on a stand, waiting to be read by whoever would sit in each chair. A pair of reading glasses sat on the left. A lone, shadeless floor lamp shone tenderly in the back corner of the stage.
Love Letters, a two-hander written by A.R. Gurney and performed by actors Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal on this national tour, is a vivid production, despite the modest set.
MacGraw and O’Neal starred in the 1970 film Love Story, in which they played lovers Jenny Cavilleri and Oliver Barrett IV, whose romance turns tragic when Jenny is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Love Story was widely acclaimed, and remains one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Its score and its most memorable lines (“Love means never having to say you’re sorry”) have entered the popular consciousness. I watched the film for the first time before seeing Love Letters, and I was most struck by the natural connectedness between the two leads.
This chemistry between MacGraw and O’Neal remains enthralling, as the pair has reunited to perform together for the first time since Love Story. In Love Letters, an established play that has long attracted celebrity actors, MacGraw is Melissa Gardner, the female counterpart to O’Neal’s Andrew “Andy” Makepeace Ladd III. The infrastructure of the story is exceptionally simple—Melissa and Andy have been friends since 2nd grade, when they began corresponding with each other. They continue this letter-writing through their teenage years, through college, and into adulthood.
The story unfolds (almost literally) as the 70-somethings flip through and read from the books of their collected letters. They create an intimate, epistolary conversation that twists and turns through struggles in life. In elementary school, sarcastic Melissa hates writing letters, and instead sends brief notes with drawings of her cat. Melissa’s dislike of letter writing frustrates Andy, but he never lets up. In college, Andy asks Melissa to be his girlfriend and she says no. It’s not until adulthood that Melissa seems to wish she said yes. After being married and divorced (and married and divorced again), Melissa is alone and in and out of treatment centers for what seems to be a combination of alcoholism and depression.
It took me a few letters to catch onto the story, but as I watched and listened, it felt like I was scrolling through someone’s text message conversation. It felt private and personal, even secretive, as Melissa and Andy revealed themselves to each other. MacGraw and O’Neal were perfect for the roles. They were poised but full of emotion through the jokes and constant banter. The simplistic set proved to be enough—there didn’t need to be more, because MacGraw and O’Neal painted a vibrant story.
Their chemistry was intense through the moments of silence, where neither heard from the other for extended time periods. These in-between times made for some of the play’s most compelling moments. As her letters went unanswered, the audience could see Melissa’s frustration, as she pulled her gray sweater tightly around her body and crossed her arms. When the days added up between letters from Melissa, Andy would stare at the audience, with an absent look on his face.
Throughout the play, Melissa wanted to get back to what was sometimes referred to as “Oz” or “the homeland,” representative of her and Andy’s more blissful, elementary days of being open and honest with each other. In adulthood, the divorced Melissa longs to be with Andy, who is now married. The two can’t seem to connect like they used to.
We feel Melissa’s struggle. Written conversations are good, even intimate, but there are moments when we need more. MacGraw portrayed this feeling with ease. There were moments in the play where I was screaming (in my head) for the two of them to hold hands, to hug, to look each other in the eyes, and to embrace like they did in Love Story. Though you hear in the letters that they did meet up periodically, it was always in time-sensitive, fleeting circumstances. This conflict of circumstances forms the backbone of the show.
There are both limits and the advantages to absentee communication. Though letters can help people get to know one another, and can provide escape during hard times, there really doesn’t seem to be a substitute for the “homeland” feeling of being with another person. Even throughout the play, sitting side-by-side, the characters were never physically present with each other. They both faced the audience, and only once or twice did Melissa look at Andy. He never looked her way. But that connectedness persisted, at least with the actors themselves.
MacGraw and O’Neal walked on stage holding hands, and after MacGraw read her last line, the two stood up and left embracing. Those transient seconds of connection, though brief, brought the play full circle, making it clear that MacGraw and O’Neal’s deep-rooted chemistry is what makes Love Letters truly noteworthy.