“It’s an ideal piece for two strong performers,” said MJ Bruder Munafo, artistic director of The Vineyard Playhouse, about her organization’s upcoming benefit presentation of “Love Letters” by A.R. Gurney, “And even more perfect when you have a couple playing the roles.”
Luckily, Ms. Munafo was able to recruit two very talented actors — celebrity couple Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen — for a one-night fundraising performance of the play at the Martha’s Vineyard High School’s Performing Arts Center in Oak Bluffs.
Of “Cheers” fame, Mr. Danson is an Emmy award winning TV and film actor. Ms. Steenburgen’s numerous film credits include “Melvin and Howard,” for which she won an Academy Award, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Back to the Future III,” “Stepbrothers,” and “The Help.” The couple will pair up for the two-person play that features old friends — and sometimes lovers — relating, through 50 years of correspondence, their shared and individual histories spanning half a century of an enduring relationship.
The play has a long performance history both on and off Broadway, has starred many luminaries of stage and screen, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
“It was written at a time that people still wrote letters to each other,” Ms. Munafo said. “Now with texting and email, it’s going to be a little nostalgic on top of everything else.
“It’s a lovely old-fashioned love story. A.R. Gurney’s writing is just superb. They’re reading love letters they’ve written and received. It’s an easy show for somebody to step into. It doesn’t require hours and hours of rehearsal. It’s something that couples in particular enjoy doing together.”
Mr. Danson and Ms. Steenburgen are longtime supporters of The Vineyard Playhouse. They appeared in one of the theater’s Monday Night Special readings about 10 years ago.
Ms. Munafo had the idea a few years back to cast the two in “Love Letters.” However, the celebrated couple wasn’t available at that time.
Last year, Ms. Munafo and Sandy Pimentel, chairman of the committee for the Martha’s Vineyard Community Services’ Possible Dreams Auction, got together to brainstorm a way that the the two organizations could work together.
“Between us we approached them about doing the play,” Ms. Munafo said. “The idea was that the money raised at the auction would go to Community Services and the money raised by the show would go to the Playhouse.” A bidder at last year’s Possible Dreams Auction paid $17,000 for front row seats and a chance to meet the stars after the show.
Ms. Steenburgen and Ms. Danson are part-time Vineyard summer residents who have a history of donating celebrity auction items to local charities.
The Vineyard Playhouse has presented “Love Letters” twice before in the 1980s, once with Van Johnson and June Havoc, and once with radio star Mason Adams and Academy Award winner Teresa Wright. Ms. Munafo recalls the Johnson/Havoc production as one of the most memorable episodes in her decades long career with the Playhouse.
“June Havoc had just broken her foot. We didn’t have an elevator at that time. We had to hire strong young men to carry her up the stairs and she just loved it. Van had just gone on the Concorde to film an episode of ‘Murder, She Wrote’ and had damaged his eardrum. He couldn’t hear very well. I remember her kicking him with her good foot under the table so that he would come in when he was supposed to.”
The Playhouse will be a much less antiquated facility when it reopens next summer. The 180-year-old building is currently undergoing an extensive renovation, restoration, and expansion, which is projected to be completed by next spring.
The Playhouse just received a $100,000 grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund which, said Ms. Munafo, “Will help us reach the finish line.” She hopes that the upcoming performance and the Playhouse’s annual Summer Gala on July 27 will help bolster their renovation fundraising efforts.
In the meantime, with the lobby now completed, The Playhouse will host a series of events there. On Tuesday Nights The Playhouse will present cabaret evenings with local musicians and Thursday mornings will be reserved for coffee and conversation with theater luminaries. The lobby, named for arts patron Marilyn Meyerhoff, will also feature an art wall with rotating exhibits.
Monday Night Specials (starting on July 8) will once again be hosted by the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center. The Playhouse’s annual Shakespeare at the Amphitheater production will be “Henry IV.”
A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters,” Tuesday, July 2, 7:30 pm, M.V. Regional High School’s Performing Arts Center, Oak Bluffs. $100 stadium seating, $200 orchestra seating. For tickets and more information, call 508-687-2452 or visit vineyardplayhouse.org.