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BATH — Although they’re just good friends, Thom Watson and Suzanne Rankin have played lovers for 15 years.
On Valentine’s Day, they will once again roll out “Love Letters,” a production that has been near and dear to their hearts and those of audience members since they first brought A.R. Gurney’s play to the stage in 1993.
Watson, who also represents Bath in the Maine House of Representatives, plays the part of Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, while Rankin’s role is that of Melissa Gardner.
“They grow up together, born to wealthy families in New England,” Watson said last week. “This (play) is an exchange of their correspondence … it spans their entire lives.”
That string of communication begins in 1937 when the two characters are 7, and Andrew responds to Melissa’s birthday party invitation.
From there they follow different paths. Andy’s path is chosen by his upbringing and defined by the expectations of his family; he goes to Yale and then enters the Navy, later becoming a U.S. senator in the 1950s. Melissa is thrown out of a variety of schools for transgressions like smoking and drinking. It’s the classic straight-laced person versus the free spirit, ensuring a colorful relationship that spans six decades.
“There’s an underlying love affair throughout the whole thing,” Watson said, mentioning how the couple first tries to consummate their affair in college.
“It’s a big, big disaster,” Rankin said.
The story continues, though, and other opportunities present themselves. Throughout their separate stories and separate marriages, Andy’s and Melissa’s lives continue to weave together beyond the written word.
Andy at one point has an affair with a woman of a different race, a choice totally unacceptable by his high-society peers.
“The play takes place in a time when there was absolutely no tolerance for deviation from the norm by anyone in their socioeconomic group,” Rankin said, adding that Andy would like to break out of that repressive grip, while Melissa encourages him to do so. Melissa, meanwhile, struggles with inner demons like alcohol abuse, and Andy is after her to clean up her act.
At one point, Andy must choose between the life that he has built and the woman he has loved since childhood.
Gurney, who Watson said has written many comedies and stage places, specified with this particular piece that the actors are not to rehearse the lines beforehand; the first time they read their respective parts to the audience is to be the first time they themselves have read the lines.
“He wants it read cold,” Watson said.
Obviously, it’s tough for him and Rankin to do so after so many performances.
“Everything is in the letters,” Watson continued. “Everything is in the words. And it’s supposed to transcend the actors. The actors merely vocalize the play.”
The performance is staged simply, with the Andy and Melissa characters seated beside each other in comfortable chairs, a table and lamp between them, reading through their series of letters. The actors do not acknowledge the other’s presence, appearing to be in different places altogether.
“It’s like you were cleaning out the bottom drawer, and you find this box of wonderful letters,” Rankin said, “and you sit down and you read through them.”
Like its two characters, the play offers many colors and invokes a variety of audience responses.
“It’s a very funny play,” Rankin said. “And it’s very sarcastic, and it’s very sad. And every single person who sees it knows somebody like these two people. I think we all know these people … or we know of them. And here the two of them had every possible economic advantage, and the one thing that Melissa didn’t have was love, and the one thing that Andy didn’t have was freedom. And so they searched.”
Rankin estimated that she and Watson have performed the play about 20 times. “And every time it’s fresh,” she said. “Every time, the same lines get you. The same feelings that these people are expressing get you, because it’s so beautifully written.”
• FYI: “Love Letters,” presented by Studio Theatre of Bath, will be performed Saturday, Feb. 14, at 7:30 p.m. at the Winter Street Center, 880 Washington St., Bath. Byrnes’ Irish Pub will cater the event, and tickets are $20. Call 442-7493 for more information.
Suzanne Rankin and Thom Watson play the part of star-crossed lifelong lovers in A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters.” (Alex Lear photo)