What could go wrong when you line up Hollywood’s A-List actors, the dynamic husband and wife team of Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, to perform a Pulitzer Prize-nominated play as a benefit for the restoration of the historic Vineyard Playhouse? The answer: a shortage of space when you sell out the 700-seat venue.
Pronouncing the July 2 evening event at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s Performing Arts Center a resounding success, Playhouse Artistic Director MJ Bruder Munafo reports that the one-night performance of A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters” raised $100,000.
“Mary and Ted were gracious, lovely, and unbelievably generous to the Playhouse cause,” Ms. Munafo said. “And they gave amazing performances. The whole evening was magical and I think everyone there was thrilled.”
Gurney’s two-person play, with its simple set (a small oak table, two chairs, and two coffee mugs) and lines that are literally read aloud from the script, seemed tailor-made for Mr. Danson and Ms. Steenburgen, who easily embodied lifelong correspondents, the fictitious Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner.
Born into privilege but destined to remain at odds in both temperament and geography, Andy and Melissa begin a lifetime of letters to one another after they meet in the second grade. Etiquette soon gives way to witty soul-bearing and good-natured needling as the two progress from childhood through middle age, expressing their hopes and disappointments as they marry others, have children, drift apart, reconnect, and share their successes (mostly his) and failures (mostly hers).
Mr. Danson, bespectacled and wry, with every silver hair in place, and Ms. Steenburgen, caustic wit sharpened, made the script come alive. The play is read by the seated actors as a series of letters. There is no movement around the stage, little expression other than the actors’ inflection. And yet the affection, frustration, and bittersweet fate of Andy and Melissa was clearly and poignantly brought to life by the talented duo.
Spanning nearly half a century, the characters age and evolve through a push-pull relationship that reveals their humanity, warts and all. The ambitious Andy tries to do the right thing, eventually rising to the U.S. Senate, while the troubled Melissa flunks out of school and eventually marriage and motherhood. And yet, across the years and the miles, they remain tethered.
Wendy Weldon, a long-time Chilmark resident and artist, was enthusiastic in her response to the evening. “The whole performance was enticing,” she said. “My partner fell hard for Mary. He found her charming, alluring, and completely convincing. The play is wonderful and the script pulled me in immediately.”
Another attendee, Catherine Urban of Vineyard Haven, commented: “It was as though ‘Love Letters’ was written for Mary and Ted. He was so suited to Andy, and Mary, the perfect Melissa. It’s a great testament to their acting abilities that they made the play their own.”
While the first phase of the Playhouse renovation is complete — exterior and lobby redone —, the newly raised funds will go towards refurbishing the 180-year-old theater’s second floor stage and seating, as well as a two-story addition, scheduled for completion in time for next summer. Meantime, a full calendar of Monday Night Specials (at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven) and new Tuesday night cabaret performances (in the Playhouse lobby at 24 Church Street in downtown Vineyard Haven) are slated with details available online at vineyardplayhouse.org.
Next summer, when theater patrons take their seats in the new Playhouse, they can thank the generosity of part-time Island residents Mr. Danson and Ms. Steenburgen for sharing some of their own love with the Vineyard on a warm July evening.