Peculiar play gets polished treatment on Martha’s Vineyard

Aaron Duclos as Stan Evans and Treather Gassmann as Gwen Patchett. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

If Tennessee Williams had written a commercial musical based in New England, it might have been “I Sent a Letter to My Love.” Or rather, this somewhat odd musical might have resulted if someone had adapted a story by the southern master of pathos and dealt it with a lighter, even breezy hand and some far more pedestrian dialogue, while moving the action along with lots of expository songs.

In Island Theatre Workshop’s (ITW) production, a great cast and soaring music lift what might otherwise be a claustrophobia-inducing downer to a warm, unconventional love story.

Williamsesque themes — loneliness, loveless-ness and frustrated dreams — are at the heart of this 1980s musical, but, although the play doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable situations, the themes are explored without self-pity or pessimism.

This makes for a bit of a paradox, but an entertaining and, oddly enough, even heart-warming piece about three blithe spirits trapped in a claustrophobic world. In the beginning, the two main characters, middle-aged siblings Amy and Stanley are seen spying, a la Jay Gatsby, on the glittering world of a Maine resort — just the other side of the lake but metaphorically light years away from their hum drum home life. A desperate move by Amy turns the lives of these two characters around dramatically.

The musical is based on a book written by Welch author Bernice Rubens in the 70s. A French film version starring Simone Signoret was released in 1980. In both the book and the film, the lead character is unattractive and unhappy with her life. When Grammy winning singer/songwriter Melissa Manchester and dramatist Geoffrey Sweet turned the material into a musical in 1989, they lightened the story up by casting Amy as a cheerful and still attractive middle-aged woman, and making Amy and Stanley loving siblings who are dedicated to each other.

This extreme character shift probably accounts for the play’s at-odds approach. What was originally a dark comedy touching on disquieting subject matter has been transformed into a tender love story, but the audience is left feeling a little squeamish about the overtones of incest that seem to contradict the uplifting music and upbeat tempo of the story.

Amy (played by Melanie Sroka-Chaunce) is the habitually sunny sister who refuses to feel remorseful about the opportunities she may have missed. Stanley (Aaron Duclos), her wheelchair-bound brother, has accepted his fate and tries to mask his disappointment by constant teasing — relying heavily on sexual innuendo to shock the women in his life.

Gwen (played by Treather Gassmann) is perhaps the most interesting character — a nervous, overly prim spinster who undergoes a complete transformation by the finale. Ms. Gassmann does an exceptional job with this character, capturing her discomfort with twitching, stuttering, and nervous giggling.

The two leads have strong singing voices and manage the show’s multiple songs very well. Ms. Sroka-Chaunce, in a subtle performance, does a marvelous job of showing the cracks in Amy’s cheerful facade. Mr. Duclos, who only recently returned from New York to take on the role, delivers the show’s standout performance. His wealth of acting experience both here and elsewhere is apparent in both his singing and acting. His very expressive face and Broadway polish make him riveting to watch.

Crawford Scott, a recent Vineyard transplant, and Martha Hudson handle two smaller roles very professionally. Both are seasoned performers. Mr. Scott has performed in musicals both nationally and abroad. Among other things, Ms. Hudson has sung in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera.

All in all, the cast is exceptional and director Kevin Ryan does an exemplary job of bringing his characters to life, flaws and all. Mr. Ryan has directed many ITW productions in the past few years, and has proven himself a consistent hand in presenting quirky characters while never allowing them to go over the top.

“I Sent a Letter to My Love” is a single-set show and, in ITW’s production, that one set captures every detail of a 50s middle class living/dining room. An added on lakeside dock extending beyond the stage is used effectively when the characters step out of the action to deliver some of the more poignant songs.

The music, which ranges from jazz era to Broadway stock in trade, is handled very well by music director Lisa Weiss. One of the best things about ITW productions is that they always employ live musicians. Ms. Weiss on piano and Jan Hyer on cello in this show prove themselves consummate professionals.

What the use of a single set lacks in variety, multiple costume changes more than make up for. The retro outfits (which can be tricky and are very often misrepresented in amateur theater) are exceptional. Period-authentic and character-appropriate, the costumes add a good deal of color to the characters’ otherwise drab existence. The one costuming misstep, a shockingly red wig on Ms. Hudson’s character is, however, a bit distracting.

Mr. Ryan explained his choice of material, saying that he wanted to take a break from standard musical fare. “So often we do a play or musical that’s popular,” he said. “I wanted to do something different – something that people weren’t used to.”

For a play that can’t quite decide if it’s Cole Porter or Tennessee Williams, “I Wrote a Letter to My Love” is, well, interesting, and it was a risky choice for ITW, who have a history of presenting unconventional material. See it for the music and the performances and decide for yourself.

“I Sent a Letter to My Love,” 8 pm, June 29, 30, July 1, 5, 6, 7, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven.