By Jeff Bahr
To love someone and to somehow lose that love is a sad circumstance nearly as common to the human existence as our very need to breathe. This divine heartache, as it has often been described by romantics, can attack without warning and it cares not whom it thrashes in the process. Left lying in the vast heap of love’s debris are members of every race, religion, creed, nationality, social stratum; the list goes on. The wrenching heartache that comes after Cupid’s arrow snaps knows no boundaries. And the residual effects of a love unrequited can last for a lifetime.
So, it stands to reason, it is that rare and lucky person who has managed to make it through life without being taken in by this beguiling force. For who really wants to be just another loser in the love sweepstakes; just another fallen warrior in love’s pathetic army? Would it be you, you, or you perhaps? What sort of masochist wishes to spend every waking day mourning a love that just couldn’t be?
It turns out the answer is a great many of us because reasoning has precious little to do with the pursuit of love. In fact this make-it-throughlife- unscathed theory, as reassuring as it may sound, holds about as much water as a kitchen strainer. Poet Alfred Lord Tennyson understood love’s contradictions at a level like no other. In his celebrated 1850 sonnet, In Memoriam, one now famous verse is as noted for its depth as it is for its lyrical beauty.
I hold it true, whate’er befall/I feel it when I sorrow most/ ‘Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all.
Here, Tennyson’s meaning is simple yet profound: Despite the indescribable pain and emptiness that gush forth like a geyser when a love held dear suddenly ceases to be, it is within the former condition that we have truly lived to the highest; that we have transcended, if only for a spell, the mundane, the ordinary, the mortal.
In “Love Letters”, a play written by A.R. Gurney and performed at the Arlington Players Club by members of the West Hudson Arts and Theater Company (W.H.A.T.), childhood friends Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner sample such fl eeting love. And lucky members of the audience get to watch their story unfold while nibbling on truffles and sipping on wine. W.H.A.T.’s not to like?
In the two-person play directed by Mark Morchel and produced by Gerald Ficeto, Ladd, played with aplomb by The Observer’s own sportswriter Jim Hague, is a wealthy young man with high ambitions and a sense of charitable purpose. Living happily under his father’s controlling thumb, he believes he can change the world if given half a chance. Gardner, played just as masterfully by Hague’s reallife partner Mary Costello (who functions as a Hudson County Superior Court Judge when not acting) isn’t nearly as rigid or uptight. A freespirited girl of even greater means, she has money to burn and a family life she’d just as soon forget. Brought together by their families as youngsters, Love Letters follows the two for a 50-year span as their love blossoms, wilts, retreats and blooms once again, with each step of the saga recorded in pen and mailed back and forth to each other in the form of – you guessed it.
A natural wit, Hague, as Ladd, is at his finest whenever a line calls for humor and precise timing. But he’s equally impressive when he works his way through the play’s more subtle passages. In the acting business this is commonly referred to as “range” and it’s something that Hague has in spades. Costello, as Melissa, provides the perfect counter balance to Ladd’s booming presence, particularly when he gets up on his high horse. It is then that her rapier-like wit cuts him to ribbons and brings him back to earth.
As the play progresses it becomes obvious to the audience that these pen-pals love each other, even if it’s something that they themselves aren’t always aware of. When the stars align and they become one for the very first time, the audience is on board with their budding romance and cheering them on from the sidelines. Unrealistic expectations and the force of gravity, however, conspire to make this first physical “outing” a disaster. Luckily, there will be a second act.
The chemistry between Hague and Costello is undeniable and infectious. A good chunk of this must be attributed to the duo’s acting prowess, but the ease that comes from their real-world relationship probably factors in as well. It’s a best-of-bothworlds scenario that adds even more validity to the crisp dialogue.
When the play moves into its final moments and Hague’s voice begins to crack with sadness, only the strongest souls will be able to force the rising lump back down into their throats. In all honesty, it was a feat that this reviewer couldn’t quite manage. Love letters is a beautifully written play that’s brimming with wit, irony, happiness, sadness, and a few unanticipated plot twists. Hague and Costello are wonderfully entertaining actors who – working in tandem as a skilled team – pull spectators in. By show’s end one can almost hear a collective “if only” coming from audience members who, along with the star-crossed lovers are betting against the odds. As plays go, it doesn’t get much better than that.