Husband and wife Tom and Holly Holowach play the letter writers in "Love Letters."

Real-life couple
vibrant on stage

Say what you want about e-mail, it's the next best thing to being there when trying to stay in touch with a friend or lover in a distant locale. There's no need to get up at 2 a.m. for a long-distance phone call, or wait day after day for a letter to arrive.

"Love Letters," continues at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Paliku Theatre, Windward Community College. Tickets are $19; $14 for seniors, military, students and children. Call 235-7433 or visit the Web site, www.eTicketHawaii.com

"Love Letters," which concludes a short two-weekend run at the Paliku Theatre on Sunday, takes us back to a time when long-distance phone calls were still something special, and penmanship was still a skill that educated people took pride in mastering. Then as now, however, people enjoyed good friendships, struggled to differentiate between lust and love, and tried to make sense of the hand they'd been dealt in the great game of life.

Sometimes they wrote love letters.

Playwright A.R. Gurney uses the letters of Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner in capturing a colorful long-term friendship. The Ladds are rich, and young Andy quickly accepts most of his father's views about the responsibilities of a gentleman. The Gardners are richer, but Melissa has a rebellious streak that often puts her at odds with East Coast society.

Andy thinks of Melissa as a lost princess. She thinks he shouldn't be so serious and straight-laced.

They meet in the second grade, and their friendship blossoms despite lengthy separations for boarding school, college, marriage, travel and public service.

In the play, two performers sit at separate desks on a bare stage to read the messages, but the richness of Gurney's writing gives the actors plenty to work with in bringing the characters and their experiences to life.

There are tears and laughter, conflicts between desire and honor, rebellion against tradition, racism and love. The social milieu of East Coast wealth and leisure is far removed from the lives of most local residents -- think "A Separate Peace" or "A Summer Place," for example -- but no more removed from Hawaii than Disney, Shakespeare or "A Chorus Line."

The experiences of Andrew and Melissa transcend ethnicity. This is fascinating theater.

Tom Holowach and his wife, Holly Holowach, play Andy and Melissa.

Holly quickly establishes Melissa as a provocative free spirit; after one problematic encounter Melissa writes that she prefers another boy because he didn't apologize to her for a bit of misbehavior. Several years later she smooches with another of Andy's friends for much the same reason. Andy's formality and unfailing commitment to doing the right thing isn't always what she's looking for, and yet there's something special about him.

Tom plays Andy as a decent guy whose primary objective seems to be living up to his father's expectations. He studies hard, goes out for sports, sacrifices his summers to help the under-privileged in appropriate upper-class social service projects, and so on.

Andy also discovers that he loves writing letters -- if Melissa doesn't like to write letters, then he'll write to somebody else. Nothing personal, he informs Melissa, he just has a need to express himself in letters.

Playwright Gurney flavors the story with one-liners that contain multiple insights on where Andy and Melissa are coming from. Andy's reaction to his grandfather's warning that "only the Jews are first" in class standings, or a casual observation that it doesn't seem possible to "be smart and Catholic at the same time," speak volumes about the casual prejudices he's heir to.

Two things make this production stand out. First, although "Love Letters" is essentially a staged reading, director Andrew Meader uses furnishings and costuming to accentuate the contrasting life paths of the characters. Andy sits at a solid, executive-style desk, wears a coat and tie, and plasters his hair down in prep-school style. Melissa's desk looks expensive but casual, her dress and scarf suggest studied elegance, but her hair is just sloppy enough to strike a warning note. A large abstract painting signals Melissa's work as an artist.

The Holowachs add intensity with voicing and posture. At times their body language effectively represents alienation, rejection and reconciliation. The characters become vibrant and memorable as their friendship continues. The audience sees far sooner than Andy and Melissa that they could be good together.

Some may identify with Andy and Melissa as they wrestle with the social and sexual mores of their era. Others will thank God that these days we have e-mail.

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