Snapchats and Instagram stories may be fleeting, but handwritten notes are forever. At least that’s the hope behind Persist Theatricals’ new production of “Love Letters,” coming to Kenan Auditorium this month. Since premiering in 1988, A.R. Gurney’s epistolary play—which depicts two erstwhile lovers sitting side-by-side, reading 50 years of letters to each other—has been performed hundreds of times in theater spaces worldwide.
The play has long attracted a string of busy name actors, as it requires little preparation and discourages participants from memorizing lines. Among famous pairs to read it are Alan Alda and Candice Bergen, Elizabeth Taylor and James Earl Jones, Tom Hanks and real-life wife Rita Wilson, Sigourney Weaver and Jeff Daniels, and Lynn Redgrave and John Clark (who performed the play for sequestered jurors during the O.J. Simpson trial at the request of Judge Lance Ito). A TV version, starring Laura Linney and Stephen Weber, aired on ABC in 1999.
What’s so special about a play that is, in essence, a table read? “Twin Peaks” star Sheryl Lee, who appears alongside Brat Pack alum Judd Nelson on October 12, says the show’s allure is hard to place. “It’s a bit magical in that way,” says Lee. “I remember the first time I saw it, thinking, ‘How does this work?’ And it just does.”
Her co-star is more direct: “The reason it works so well is because Gurney’s writing is so good . . . He’s really one of the great American playwrights and just doesn’t get the credit he deserves.”
Nelson would know. He previously appeared in “Love Letters” opposite soap star Valerie Bertinelli in 1991. Lee has also performed the play before—once with the late Luke Perry, and once with “Wings” star Tim Daly. Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal, who broke hearts as star-crossed lovers in the 1970 box office hit “Love Story,” and who appeared in Gurney’s play in 2015, will reprise their roles on October 5.
Gurney never set out to write “Love Letters” in its current form. Known for his plays about upper-crust life in the American northeast, Gurney was coming off the success of “The Dining Room” (1982) when he suspected he’d had enough of theatre. He pitched a novel-in-letters to “The New Yorker,” only to receive a swift rejection. Instead of despairing, he rewrote it as a two-hander, in which both actors read letters back and forth to one another. Soon after, he staged an impromptu performance at the New York Public Library with friend and actress Holland Taylor. “We started at four, and I put in an arbitrary intermission at five, saying, ‘Well, I’m sure a lot of you have to go,’” Gurney told BOMB Magazine in 2006. “And nobody wanted to leave! So I figured we had something.”
Three decades (and one Pulitzer Prize nomination) later, the play remains a hit. Lee believes in today’s rapidly-changing world—in which people are constantly tethered to their phones and rarely take the time for handwritten correspondence—theater-goers are drawn to “good old-fashioned romance of love letters. No matter how fast the world moves forward, and how much technology takes over our culture, we are still humans with hearts, and we need love.”
She applies that same philosophy to meeting fans. Despite identifying as an introvert, Lee is pragmatic about doing pre- and post-show meet-and-greets ($125), during which fans are often eager to ask her about her time as Laura Palmer on “Twin Peaks.” “As I’ve gotten older, there’s a sweetness of gratitude and appreciation that comes with these moments where we meet each other,” she says.
Nelson, too, recognizes the importance of such moments: For many fans, his roles as John Bender in “The Breakfast Club” and Alec Newbary in “St. Elmo’s Fire” represent formative cultural touchstones. “To be able to ride a fast horse like ‘The Breakfast Club’ that has a lot of fans,” he says, “I’m lucky to have been part of it.”
“Love Letters” also marks a return to Wilmington for both actors. A longtime Angeleno, Nelson came to Wilmington in 1986, to film the courtroom dramedy “From the Hip” at De Laurentiis Entertainment Group Studios, now EUE/Screen Gems. Lee was last in town in the mid 2000s, for a nine-episode arc of the popular TV show “One Tree Hill.”
It’s a welcome homecoming—both to the area and to Gurney’s play. “Wilmington holds a very special place in my heart,” Lee says. “I did this in my 20s, and now I’m doing it at 52. I don’t want to assume anything about what that experience is going to be like. I just want to go in and be present with it.”