Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Love Letters
The Pear Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Michael Saenz and Michael Rhone
Photo courtesy of Michael Saenz and Michael Rhone
A.R. Gurney's 1988-premiering Love Letters has been performed hundreds of times in theaters on and off Broadway, coast-to-coast, and internationally, featuring thousands of couples–often the biggest names in showbiz–who generally star in the two-hander show only one night. By design of the playwright, actors do not see a script ahead of time. They arrive on stage, sit at two desks in two settings, and begin to read the letters, cards, and notes sent by two people to each other over a near-fifty-year relationship. In the epistles, they discuss their hopes and dreams, their quirks and complaints, their victories and disappointments, and a long-lasting love relationship between them that seems to work better on paper than in person.

The Pear Theatre joins the long list of companies producing the ever-popular Love Letters by enlisting much-accomplished, well-known, Bay Area actors who, for eight of the nine performances, are actual couples in long-term relationships. With such talent and with Gurney's brilliantly funny and emotionally captivating script, The Pear Theatre has a hit on its hands that tempts an audience member to return in order to experience a different couple's spontaneous interpretations.

Soon after the actors open the script and begin to read their first exchanged notes about an upcoming birthday party in 1937, they quickly discover that their personas–Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III–are young kids in elementary school, and make quick adjustments in voice, sitting stance, and overall demeanor. Their back-and-forths are at first like the forbidden notes kids pass under the table in class, complete with drawn pictures of naked people and bedpans. Years quickly pass, noted by greetings of "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Birthday," as each soon heads (or is forced by respective parents) to boarding schools, beginning what will be a shared lifetime of mostly living in different locations while always continuing their connection through the written word.

Early on, the two begin to recognize, discuss, debate, and sometimes berate the other about their differences. As a child and on into adulthood, Andy fills his pages with long, detailed descriptions of studies and activities, noting time and again, "I love to write," usually adding, "especially to you." Andy is the more reserved and cautious of the two, comes from a loving and supportive family, and is on a trajectory that will include the best schools, naval service, successful law career, and elected offices.

Melissa, on the other hand, is openly and proudly rebellious, detests writing overall (often answering Andy's long list of questions only with yes/no answers), and is happiest when pursuing her artistic talents. While from a much richer family than Andy, Melissa is envious of the love Andy receives at home which she does not in a divorced home and from a mother who finds greatest solace in her gin bottle. Melissa writes early on of her frequent visits to a psychiatrist's office (where she likes to talk about sex) and about being once again transferred to a different school because of the trouble caused at the last one.

But through their many years of traversing the globe and traveling the roads of bumpy, love relationships with others, Melissa and Andy continue to correspond, even when the other sometimes does not respond for months and months at a time. From those earliest of grade school days and through thick and thin over the years, they time and again openly admit their love for each other. Yet, each also seems always to find excuses and reasons resulting in their paths rarely crossing in person. When they do, they usually find that the other in person is not the same as the one played out in written words.

And all of this is unveiled by two actors reading, for the first time, the lines given them.

I chose to attend a particular production of The Pear's current run of Love Letters because on this night, "Melissa" becomes "Mel" as a married-in-life, gay couple, Michael Rhone and Michael Saenz, take on the roles of Andy and Mel, respectively. Director Wynne Chan–who of course only makes upfront, production decisions and has no rehearsal time with any of the actors themselves–has made only a few, minimal changes here and there to Gurney's original script to accommodate the same-sex relationship of the night's protagonists. While there remain in the script a number of references indicating that this male "Mel" still shares aspects of a female "Melissa's" life, no real harm occurs, given the overall powerful and moving effect of witnessing two men on stage reading through their lifelong correspondence as dear friends and almost lovers.

Both Michaels give stellar performances that left me incredulous that they had not actually rehearsed their parts for weeks. Over and again, each makes on-the-spot decisions to use a sly grin, a tossed hand to the hair, a sudden jerk of the head, or a blank stare off into space to visually underline the words they are writing or reading (actually of course, hearing). Feelings well up in each of sheer happiness, deep-felt disappointment, erotic imaginings, sincere concern, and out-right anger–all expressed in a host of ways that appear to have been carefully considered, practiced, and perfected over time, but that are just the talents of two experienced actors (who know each other very well) being tested in the moment and proven with flying colors. Clearly, as the play and the lives of Mel and Andy progress, the actors seem as genuinely moved by the unveiling of eventual, sad events of older life as we in the audience are.

The casting of two gay men allows new meanings to surprisingly and wonderfully spring from Gurney's original script. Mel admits on hearing the passing of Andy's father, "I know you loved him very much; I also know he didn't like me ... I'm sure he thought I was bad for you." Those words take on whole new meanings when one considers Mel is remembering himself as a more feminine, artsy guy and his boyhood with his more athletic, studious friend. Likewise, as we hear each man discussing marriages with some feigned attempts to make them sound like happy choices, we remember that the years these are occurring in are the fifties and sixties when many LGBTQ people lived closeted and often dutifully married to members of the opposite sex, as families and society suggested they should instead of whom their hearts truly yearned.

Louis Stone-Collonge's simple but effective set design provides a cozy, separate office for each actor to write and read the scores of messages. The lighting designed by Sonya Wong helps focus our attention on particular moments when one or the other is feeling ignored and alone or is feeling ecstatic about a message just received. Particularly impressive is the sound design by Sinjin Jones as bells ring just in time for each holiday greeting, and short clips of musical notes insert themselves at just the right moments for emphasis in changed mood, news of some import, or just a pause for needed reflection–all again done with no prior rehearsal or knowledge of the pace these two actors will employ in their performances.

My only regret in being witness to the lifetime of sharing between Mel and Andy is that there will not be a repeat for others to equally enjoy the stunning performances of Michael Rhone and Michael Saenz. At the same time, I also regret not having the time to return to The Pear Theatre to relish the upcoming performances of the remaining couples who each night will likewise interpret and invent fascinating new ways to premiere one-night-only versions of A.R. Gurney's Love Letters.

Love Letters runs through May 11, 2024, in repertory with Lloyd Suh's The Chinese Letter (which concludes May 12), at The Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida, Suite A, Mountain View CA. For tickets and information, please visit