Hollywood tells us that romance unfolds in a montage, in sparkling date nights and lazy Sunday mornings and in the inescapable gravity of consistent, insistent closeness. But as a veteran of long-distance relationships (I’m talking 10,000-mile commutes), I can attest that sometimes love grows in our absence from each other.
The space that separates two people who connect is the tension of Love Letters, A.R. Gurney’s classic play, now at Four County Players in Barboursville. Performed by Broadway veterans and real-life married couple Linda Poser and Kenneth H. Waller, the show follows 50 years of correspondence between childhood friends Melissa and Andy. Opening with an invitation to a birthday party, their letters (and what’s left unsaid) illustrate a lifetime of love, heartbreak and hope.
“We short-change our imagination sometimes,” says director Linda Zuby. “When something’s really explicit and outlines every single detail, it sometimes is not as interesting as something that’s left open. Like in scary movies, seeing the shadow is infinitely scarier than actually seeing the monster.”
Less is more as Love Letters builds. Sometimes its protagonists are very far apart, geographically as well as emotionally. When one person fails to get ahold of the other, silence speaks volumes.
“It’s not a play in a traditional sense,” says director Linda Zuby. “They are literally just reading the letters to each other as though they were not in the same room. Sometimes it’s the full letter, and sometimes it’s just a Merry Christmas card. They don’t interact.”
Clustered in the cellar of Four County, audience members will feel like strangers in their living room. Successful execution depended heavily, Zuby says, on the talent of the actors, who are a perfect fit for the show.
“You read this play and you think, ‘That could be boring.’ But [Poser and Waller] are so efficient in their presentation,” she says. “There is economy in the movement and voice. They know how to edit themselves and make the strongest point with as little angst as possible.”
Simply standing on stage and reading letters, Poser and Waller also manage to transform from children to full-fledged adults. “With just a little change of a voice or something, they make the characters grow up before your eyes,” Zuby says. “Toward the end of the first act, they’re away at school when suddenly there’s this shift in one of [Andy]’s letters. You hear it in Ken’s voice; there’s this little subtle change that he’s not a kid anymore. Adulthood hits right there for him.”
Zuby majored in theater and acting at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and rarely directs shows, but she says Love Letters was a “win-win” for her. “For this particular project, I just needed to create an environment that they felt safe working in and were happy,” she says. “I just need to sit there and go, ‘Okay. That’s good. Yeah that’s good.’”
In their self-penned bios, Poser and Waller describe the circumstances that shaped their professional talents—and their many-lettered romance.
Waller, who performed in several shows on Broadway, including 16 years with The Phantom of the Opera, moved in 1969 to New York with his bachelor of fine arts in drama and, with no idea what to do next, got cast in the national tour of Zorba alongside Broadway giants. He went on to tour with the companies of Carousel, Kiss Me Kate, 1776, Showboat, South Pacific, Shenandoah and Evita. “During that time, I met the love of my life, Linda Poser,” he writes. “We later moved to the suburbs of New Jersey and produced our greatest success, our daughter, Amy.”
Poser, who began her stage career in Los Angeles, also performed in the Broadway version of Phantom (and several more Broadway shows). She and Waller “began dating whenever we were in New York at the same time, which wasn’t very often,” she writes, “so we corresponded with letters (and eventually love letters!!).”
With their own romance spanning miles and decades, the two stars know the power of the written word. So did the playwright, who penned Love Letters in 1988, “when people still mostly wrote letters,” Zuby says.
“Now there’s this shift where e-mails and text messages and unfortunately tweets have taken over what we think is correspondence and communication,” she says. “But handwriting a letter or a note is a totally different experience. I’m more thoughtful when I take the time to do that instead of whipping up something on my keyboard.”
In the show, Andy writes to Melissa that he feels at home with his pen and paper. He says, as Zuby explains, “I feel like I’m really speaking to you. I don’t feel that way on the phone. Once this phone call ends, it’s over.”
Because no matter what Sting or psychologists recommend, loving something means you don’t want to set it free. Through handwritten letters, at least, relationships may never really end.
“One of the characters mentions that,” Zuby says. “She says, ‘You can always keep my letter and read it again. It will bring back what we experienced at that time like nothing else could do.’”