Someone once wrote that tragedy lies in the very necessity of making choices. By choosing, you inevitably leave another possibility behind -- always a loss, sometimes unnoticeable, at other times glaring and painful. If you don't depart Encore! Dinner Theatre's thought-provoking production of A.R. Gurney's Love Letters mulling over some of those sad, small or stupid decisions of your past -- a misplaced phone call, a particular choice of words -- then more power to you, but membership in the category of humanity virtually guarantees it for the rest of us.
Love Letters, a two-person play, naturally lends itself to minimalism. Two chairs and a pile of papers would do it, because the force of the performance doesn't rely on any theatrical pyrotechnics, but only on the words we give to each other in that formal, "dying art" of letter-writing.
Letters, like many of my favorite plays, is talky; you have to build it in your imagination. In this dark, cavernous dinner theater, located in outlying Manitou and lit by mellow red lamps, I found that the intimacy of this material works even better than Encore's last performance: the laudable but slightly misplaced showcase Ain't Misbehavin'.
That said, minimalism does not imply simplicity. We have fine acting here from David Rasmussen (recently in Star Bars' Lend Me a Tenor) as Andrew, the earnest, responsible young man who loves writing, and especially by Ashley Crockett as his childhood friend, Melissa Gardner. Melissa draws pictures, not of cute hearts, but of hospital bedpans or kangaroos jumping over orange juice. She has spark, rich but dysfunctional parents, and a certain twisted harshness that obscures her fear of vulnerability. Crockett knows this character: She evokes desire, hurt and unsentimental humor -- and makes it look easy throughout.
Subtly directed by John Barber, the actors read stacks of letters, sometimes moving closer together, then retreating to opposite corners, all with the backdrop of a fine, salmon-colored set depicting notes written in fat, crayon-like lines. Soon you are immersed in the detailed signals, evasions and invitations that travel back and forth, and you begin to care about the characters. Melissa pushes the envelope at Catholic School, making out with unsavory boys. "You can be attracted to someone you hate. Well, maybe you can't, but I can," she quips.
On the surface, Andrew (very likably played by Rasmussen) is a bit more of a stuffed shirt, outlining his points in numbered order and officially apologizing to the authorities after a minor wrongdoing. But behind his rigid faade is a sensitive and excitable character with a wry sense of humor. At one point, he muses, "If you get boring to yourself, imagine how boring you'd be to God."
As messy as the relationship gets -- as they get older, it gets messier -- the effort always seems worth it. Without presenting the details of their "real" or outer lives, the performance gives us what seems even more real: a window into the kind of perfect loneliness that can only be expressed in friendship.
Love Letters spans 50 years, and it's easy to conclude that the era of Andrew and Melissa's childhood was more favorable to a certain kind of connection. Andrew's defense of letter-writing, challenged by Melissa's preference for the telephone, resonates differently in the Internet Age, which emerged soon after Letters' debut. In the end, I have to side with Andrew on this one: Despite talk of a wired, connected world, I'm not sure we can do better than a solid, hand-held letter.