NC Theatre's current production of A.R. Gurney's epistolary drama, Love Letters, is a testament to how powerful theater can be when it trusts its audience.
At Fletcher Opera Theater, Bill Yates Jr.'s bare-bones set features just two desks, two chairs, two glasses of water, and two open scripts in front of an almost blindingly bright cyclorama. Veteran Raleigh stage actor Ira David Wood III (as Andrew) and stage-and-screen star Sandy Duncan (as Melissa) remain seated for most of the performance.
Director Guy Stroman imposes no mournful sound cues, no illusory projections, no pantomiming with props—just two people connecting. It is two characters speaking for themselves. That's it.
We watch as they correspond, reciting more than fifty years' worth of letters filled with broken promises, cheesy family newsletter announcements, condolences, and everything in between. The passage of time is marked by shifts in designer Christina L. Munich's vibrant colored lights.
The decision to keep the characters seated at their desks makes the show feel static at first, but, as it goes on, the staging becomes deeply compelling. The simplicity of the production allows Duncan and Wood to just act, unhindered by unnecessary props or costume changes. Wood, as the insufferable yet endearing Ladd, is the perfect match for Duncan as the biting, snarky Gardner. Especially viewing the 1988 show through a 2018 lens, Duncan is electrifying as an assertive "nasty woman" decades ahead of her time.
The strength of the acting aside, there are some jarring elements in this production. At the end of the play, one character speaks to another outside of the context of writing a letter, which weakens the premise. Love Letters is also thick with moments of racism, sexism, and toxic masculinity, reflecting real attitudes at the time when the fictional letters were written. NC Theatre presents these moments as written, without theatrical commentary, revealing the harsh realities of privilege in the era and offering a darker glimpse into the characters.
Even with Melissa's shocking barrage of Asian slurs and Andrew's repeated slut-shaming, Love Letters feels incredibly current. These missives could have been written in emails and tweets as easily as on stationery. In a time when inappropriate relationships between men, women, and nonbinary people are being exposed every day, a play showing how a man and a woman mistreat each other feels especially apt.
Latching onto each other and lashing out, undergoing days of constant contact and weeks of silence—it all reveals how we use one another and how much further we have to go.