Love & Death 

A.R. Gurney's tragic romance, Love Letters, opens at Sleeping Cat.

I don't know how many times A.R. Gurney's romance Love Letters has been performed in Memphis. The U of M most recently performed it with Touched by an Angel star Jerry Dye and Little House on the Prairie alum Melissa Gilbert. Theatre Memphis did it a few years before with Martha Graber and Michael Fortner. Playhouse did it with a rotating cast of actors. Playwrights' Forum produced it with Memphian-turned-superstar Kathy Bates. It has played The Orpheum at least once, perhaps more. And now Sleeping Cat, the tiny theater in the Edge, takes a swing at Gurney's most frequently produced work with John Malloy and Rosemary Falk in the leading roles.

Since local playhouses don't think anything about reviving Love Letters again and again, I don't feel the least bit guilty about reaching back in the vault, pulling out an earlier review, and printing it nearly verbatim. Here goes:

"In his introduction, playwright A.R. Gurney states that Love Letters is a play about writing; a claim that the epistolary nature of the script only superficially supports. As the two characters fall in and out of love (with each other), trouble, and marriage (to other people), they do occasionally debate the virtues of letter-writing. But this supports Gurney's claim only to the degree that Blanche's death wish makes A Streetcar Named Desire a play about unclean grapes. If Gurney is correct and Love Letters is about writing, then there must be something independent of the script -- some external agent -- that makes it so.

"That elusive agent to which I refer is the performance. While the actors in [Sleeping Cat's] production of Love Letters give lively and animated performances, director [Jim Esposito] never explores the possibility of a relationship between the characters and the letters they write. Without this element, the play's focus shifts from writing to reading. The actors read us the story of their characters. It is a good reading -- but that is not the same thing as good acting. In a letter excusing their coital incompatibility, Melissa Gardner (played by a well-spoken [Rosemary Falk]) says, 'This letter-writing has messed us up. It's made us seem like people we're not. There were two people missing in the Hotel Duncan that night: namely, the real you and the real me.' Ah, the rub. Communicating only through letters, the actors must work together, all the while making the letters their scene partners.

"There are so many ways people relate to the words they scribble on a page. A well-turned phrase might lead the author to take up the paper and marvel at the shape of a favored scrawl, while an 'I' dotted in anger can put a hole clean through the desktop. Sometimes the right word never comes. And sometimes, when the right word does appear, it releases an avalanche of ideas and passionate verbiage that had been trapped inside the author until that first lucky word escaped the pen. These giddy highs and excruciating lows in the action are necessary to save Gurney's cleverly crafted script from its movie-of-the-week storyline."

I'm fairly certain that should another performance of Love Letters crop up in the next few years I could use this same review yet again as every single production of this show is staged exactly like the one before it. Just once I would love to see the female character read the male character's letters, and vice versa. Just once I would like to see the actors memorize their lines rather than read them from the script. Just once I would like to see a production of Love Letters where the actors weren't glued to their chairs but were allowed to find physical means to express themselves. But chances are none of this will ever happen. Theaters choose to perform Love Letters because of its form, not because of its content. It requires no set to speak of, making it very inexpensive to stage. And because the actors are allowed to read, rehearsals are minimal. Theaters choose Love Letters because they think that it is easy to produce. The fact is, nothing could be further from the truth. The very things that make Gurney's script seem so simple to perform are actually the things that make it so very difficult. Fortunately for Sleeping Cat, the actors aren't particularly well-suited for the roles they play. I say this is fortunate because both actors are more colorful and interesting than the script's whitebread characters, and some of that color rubs off.

John Malloy, a local thespian who teaches acting at the U of M, has had a long career as a character actor, his most famous role to date being one of the bums in the wonderfully giddy film version of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row starring Nick Nolte. He brings a good-natured gruffness to Gurney's terminal preppy whose vanity, combined with a sense of obligation, compels him to go into politics. Rosemary Falk, however, is Sleeping Cat's biggest surprise. In the past, Falk's acting has been limited to timid readings of the nightly curtain speech. Who knew she had a truly great performance in her? Falk's honesty has a certain naive charm that makes the trust-fund brat she plays genuinely sympathetic. The intimacy of Sleeping Cat also helps this production succeed where others have failed. In a larger space, this little play can disappear in a hurry.

Showing September 26th-27th.

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