Arts and ‘Letters’; Four couples, four weekends, one famous play at Ojai

 The four real couples who are bringing their own unique interpretation to "Love Letters" and the weekend they are doing so are (clockwise from top left): Tracey Williams and Cecil Sutton (March 19-21); Tree Bernstein and Buddy Wilds (March 26-28); Suz Montgomery and John Hankins (April 9-11) and Lynn Van Emmerik and Bill Spellman (April 2-4).

The four real couples who are bringing their own unique interpretation to “Love Letters” and the weekend they are doing so are (clockwise from top left): Tracey Williams and Cecil Sutton (March 19-21); Tree Bernstein and Buddy Wilds (March 26-28); Suz Montgomery and John Hankins (April 9-11) and Lynn Van Emmerik and Bill Spellman (April 2-4).

Like an ideal child’s toy at Christmas, A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters” requires very little assemblage, has only two movable parts, and has easy-to-follow instructions. This table read through of a couple’s love letters — from childhood mash notes to old-age epistles — has grown from a little bit of theater to a worldwide hit. Its original 1989 production featured a cast that changed weekly, with big name stars (William Hurt, Marsha Mason, et al) taking on the roles. There’s been foreign adaptations — one rewritten in Urdu for Indian culture — and even a performance by Gov. Schwarzenegger and his wife Maria Shriver.

The revolving cast is part of what keeps the play going — and Ojai ACT offers four different versions this month for the price of one. See all four or choose one.

Ojai Art Center Theater decided against having to choose one of the acting couples — all real couples in real life — for their production of “Love Letters” and instead are letting the audience make up their own mind. Starting today, each couple has secured its own weekend. Opening weekenders Tracey Williams and Cecil Sutton have the romantic pedigree for sure. They acted together in 2009’s Ojai ACT production of “Private Lives” and were married only a few months ago.

Tree Bernstein and Buddy Wilds take over next weekend while Suz Montgomery and John Hankins feature in the third weekend. Montgomery is host of Ventura’s “Schmooze with Suz” talk show, while Hankins is also handling the press for this event. On the final weekend, Lynn Van Emmerik and Bill Spellman take on the roles of Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III.

Spellman, a retired dentist, is a “great comic guy” according to Hankins, while Van Emmerik is the more conservative of the two.

“They really should switch roles,” he jokes, as the dynamic of the play’s couple gives most of its stuffiness to the male and the free spirit to the female.

“This is not a sappy romantic play at all,” Hankins says. “There’s periods where they can’t stand each other.”

For Hankins, the character and the play touches him directly. His own East Coast upbringing and his stint in the Navy mirrors Andrew’s, right down to the places he was stationed. Both returned to the States and moved to California.

He also knows all about love letters. His first wife died of cancer some years ago, and he found himself going back to a stack of her own epistles and reading them through.

“Sometimes I’d grin or laugh out loud or close my eyes from memory,” he says. “And I want to use that experience in the play. The director will determine whether that works or not.

“That we have or wish we had a hidden stack of memories in a shoe box or in an attic may explain the enduring popularity of the play.”

Director Gai Jones, who is working with Hankins and Van Emmerik on their evening, wonders where all this tradition may be going in the future.

“We’re coming to a point where texting and e-mails are not going to leave a paper trail so our ancestors can read what we were thinking and feeling,” she says. “Part of the magic is hearing the spoken work translated from the page.”

“Love Letters” has that in abundance, with the actors as conduits for the written emotions. As Gurney advises the actors in his own notes: “No crying. Let the audience do the crying if they feel like it.” And they will.

‘LOVE LETTERS’
When: 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays; through April 4
Where: 113 S. Montgomery St., in Ojai
Cost: $15 to $18
Information: (805) 640-8797 or ojaiact.org

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