St. Charles’ Steel Beam ‘Love Letters’ a special delivery

Production a creative fundraiser for Steel Beam Theatre

"Love Letters" at Steel Beam Theatre in 2024.

I have three older brothers, and when they were in different parts of the country while my parents were still alive, long-distance calls weren’t cheap, and texting didn’t even exist, so we did a round-robin letter among all of us to keep in touch. We’d each write a letter to insert in an envelope with other family members’ letters, removing the last letter of the next recipient so they only received updates from the rest of us, not their own letter. I always looked forward to that package of letters, even if some were written over a month earlier. I’ve always felt that the good thing about a hand-written note or letter is that you’re able to give it some thought as you’re composing it, changing what you need to before it gets dropped into a mailbox.

“Love Letters,” a Pulitzer Prize-finalist play by A.R. Gurney, pays tribute to the power of letters, letting an audience witness how a relationship between two second-graders in 1937 evolves over the next 50 years. This special fundraising production of “Love Letters” for Steel Beam Theatre in St. Charles will run through Sunday, March 3, starring Rikki Lee Travolta as Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Deborah Swinford as Melissa Gardner.

Their costumes never change, and the beautiful heart- and letters-filled mural behind them on the stage, created by Barry Norton, is also a constant. But the two characters do develop before our eyes, going from sweet exchanges as children (“Will you help me go down and get milk and cookies during recess?” “I will if you don’t ask me to marry you again”) to serious, sometimes introspective, writings as adults. (“I keep thinking about that strange old world we grew up in. How did it manage to produce both you and me? A stalwart upright servant of the people, and a boozed-out, cynical, lascivious old broad. The best and the worst, that’s us.”)

Under the direction of Regina Belt-Daniels, Travolta and Swinford truly bring out the emotions, expressions and inflections of two people who don’t lose touch with each other for long, but go through extended periods of time where they’re in different parts of the world and become very different individuals who are far from just an “upright servant” or a “boozed-out, cynical, lascivious old broad.”

"Love Letters" at Steel Beam Theatre in 2024. Rikki Lee Travolta

It’s important to know what this show is not – it’s not filled with action, and the “dialogue” isn’t memorized, but it isn’t supposed to be. In an author’s note by Gurney in the script for “Love Letters,” he says that the play is designed “simply to be read aloud,” and that it works best if the actors don’t look at each other until the end, but that they “listen eagerly and actively to each other … much as we might listen to an urgent voice on a one-way radio, coming from far, far away.” There are laughs, especially in the early years, but this was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for drama, not comedy, so while the writing is realistic and occasionally witty, it also deals with subject matter like marriages, divorces, deaths, careers, sex and ambition.

Because of the serious topics and very occasional swearing, this is probably a play for a PG-13 audience. But it’s well worth the time of theater-going adults, especially those who want to support a long-running small (70+ seats) theater in our community that needs some financial assistance right now.

Two quick notes:

• The program doesn’t indicate it, but “Love Letters” is a two-act play, so don’t make the mistake made by a few audience members at the Saturday performance I attended: leaving after the first part of the show. There are a lot of plot developments yet to come after that 10-minute break.

• The actors aren’t miked. The closer you are to the stage, the better. I sat in the fourth row, and I had trouble hearing Travolta during a few bits of his dialogue.

In summary, I did love “Letters,” and, like the communications between Andy and Melissa, I’m putting that in writing.

• Paul Lockwood is a local theater actor, singer, Grace Lutheran Church (Woodstock) and Toastmasters member, columnist and past president of TownSquare Players. He and his wife have lived in Woodstock for over 23 years.

IF YOU GO

• WHAT: “Love Letters”

• WHERE: Steel Beam Theatre, 111 W. Main St., St. Charles

• WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, through March 3

• INFORMATION: www.steelbeamtheatre.com