There are a lot of letters being delivered by local actors these days. First came B Street Theatre’s Hate Mail, a glib alternative to the oft-done Love Letters, with the similar dramatic premise of dialogue exchanged entirely through letters. Now we have the original Love Letters in a short run by a new theater group in Roseville, the Big Idea Theatre. It’s ironic that both are playing at the same time across town from each other.
A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters has a simple plan: Tell a story of a relationship through letters. Put two actors side by side, have them read the letters to the audience and showcase the characters’ interactions through words instead of action.
The play explores the relationship between childhood friends Melissa Gardner and Andrew Ladd III. The written exchanges start out with passed notes and valentines in elementary school and graduate into letters swapped during boarding school, college and through adulthood. Via letters, they flirt, they fight, they forgive and they forge separate lives, remaining there for each other through written word at each stage in life.
Despite its telling of two life stories, Love Letters is not a heavyweight drama. It succeeds in keeping us interested in each of the characters through a creative method of storytelling, but the dramatic arc is not high. And because it’s simple to put on with two actors at two desks reading from a script, the play is often produced with local celebrities stepping into the roles.
This time, however, Big Idea Theatre recruited two well-respected local actors, Linda Nalbandian and James Wheatley, as the lures to make this production inviting. Nalbandian brings real pathos and growth to the troubled Melissa, making you care about what eventually happens to this spunky kid. However, Wheatley, known for memorable performances at Celebration Arts and Sacramento Theatre Company, gives a rare disappointing turn as Andrew. His rushed and mumbled delivery feels unpolished and under-rehearsed, an odd turn for an actor who usually nails his part.
But the production, housed in Roseville’s stately 1912 Polish American Community Hall, still manages to capture the simple joy of a lifelong love and friendship.