Six couples to share two lead roles in 'Love Letters'


When the Spotlighters Theatre obtained the rights to A. R. Gurney's two-person epistolary play, "Love Letters," the theater's artistic director, Audrey Herman, thought it would be zTC fun to have a series of different couples perform it. Ed Perry, the show's director, not only agreed, he cast Herman as half of one of the six couples appearing in the play in rotation.

There is precedent for multiple casting in "Love Letters"; in fact, there are multiple precedents. All of these stem from the unusual nature of the play. "Love Letters" consists of 50 years of fictitious correspondence between a patrician couple who meet in the second grade. In an effort to reinforce the distance inherent in a relationship conducted through the mail, the playwright insists that the letters be read and not memorized.

This means "Love Letters" requires minimal rehearsal time. When it made its 1989 New York debut, the play proved an ideal vehicle for stars reluctant to commit to long engagements. In Los Angeles, celebrities stepped in for brief runs between movie or TV shoots.

The six couples at the Spotlighters range from a long-married couple to a pair who had never met before the audition.

"One of the things I was trying to accomplish, since you read this, was to keep this fresh," Perry explains. "Another thing I was interested in doing was getting different interpretations of the same play." And, he confirms, "I very definitely am getting totally different readings from different people."

To get an idea of how different the Spotlighters' couples are from each other, three of the most diverse were interviewed.

Herman is playing opposite John Bruce Johnson, president of the Vagabond Players. Between them, they have 60 years at the helm of two of Baltimore's most established community theaters. They've also been friends for three decades, often sharing the resources of each other's theaters in a spirit of cooperation typified by this production. But until now, they'd never performed together.

"I'm the only actor in Baltimore who's never acted at Spotlighters," says Johnson, who also insists he doesn't really consider himself an actor, having last appeared on stage -- at the Vags -- in 1974. Herman, on the other hand, has appeared on the Spotlighters stage with some regularity, most recently in "Pippin" last May.

Johnson says not having to memorize lines was one of the enticements of "Love Letters." At the same time, he's concerned about the idiosyncratic direction called for in the script. "We're not even supposed to pay attention to each other. The two actors on stage are theoretically oblivious of each other -- reading letters they've written," he explains. "I'm so used to looking at Audrey on stage acting. If Audrey speaks on stage, I want to see it."

In contrast, Branch and Dickens Warfield, the only husband-and-wife team in the show, insist that after 38 years of marriage, not looking at each other will be easy. "We ignore each other all the time," Dickens jokes.

Despite this remark, the Warfields, who are retired, look for opportunities to perform together. Of the 50 shows they have each been in since 1972, three-fourths have been together.

Branch says the chief difficulty of "Love Letters" is that, "for me, it's hard not to ham it up, to sit there and read . . . and almost not respond -- almost as if you were on radio. But it's an interesting discipline for us."

The couple who met at the audition are Sue Hess, president of the Maryland Citizens for the Arts, and Richard Kirstel, an artist, photographer and writer. They quickly discovered a common bond. Hess worked on the Maryland Citizens' ArtSalute last season with Kirstel's wife, Barbara, who is house manager of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, where the event took place.

That connection aside, Hess believes that having had no previous contact with her "Love Letters" co-star will be "an advantage because you've got a white slate that you're working with . . . It's not distorted by any previous kinds of knowledge."

What worries her is that -- unlike Kirstel, who has been active in area theaters since 1986 -- she hasn't acted in 17 years. And, at the intimate Spotlighters, the audience will be just an arm's length away.

"Sue's feeling a little nervous because it's her 'return debut,' " acknowledges Kirstel, who adds that for him, "it's just another show."

Hess is overcoming her fear, though, in part because she's a fan of the play and in part because she hopes she'll enjoy performing again. But she also has another, more poignant motivation for appearing in this play about a long-standing relationship. John E. Hess Sr., her husband of 39 years, died in September.

"I felt that my husband would really have liked me to have done it," she says.

"Love Letters"

Where: Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Jan. 29

Tickets: $8 and $9

Call: (410) 752-1225

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