Letter Imperfect

Remember letters? I don't mean bills, sales flyers, or computer personalized sweepstakes packets. I mean envelopes addressed in ink, sealed with wax or scented, filled with news of family, tales of travel, or words of love. I mean savoring the written voice of a friend, hearing their inflection in your head, and seeing through their eyes by reading their sentences. I mean reading the good parts over and over and then devoting time to writing back, composing the story of your recent life for the pleasure of someone waiting on the other side of the world, the country, the state, even the town. Few of us think we have the time for such a luxury these days. Letters may be inexpensive, intimate, and creative, but they're not as convenient as the telephone, the fax machine, or e-mail.

The characters in British playwright Hugh Whitemore's 1988 play The Best of Friends would have been appalled at these disposable forms of communication between friends. In a quietly engaging production at New Theatre in Coral Gables, paced to mirror the rhythms of writing and reading letters, Whitemore's play dramatizes a decades-long correspondence between critic-playwright-socialist George Bernard Shaw (Bill Yule), Laurentia McLachlan, Abbess of Stanbrook at Worcester (Ellen Davis), and museum director Sir Sidney Cockerell (Phillip M. Church). Dead before computers and fax machines were even a gleam in the telecommunications industry's eye, this real-life trio exchanged spiritual, intellectual, and emotional ideas through the mail for 40 years, in the process relishing each other's wit, intelligence, love of language, gift for observation, and capacity for appreciating life. The play lends theatrical shape to the letters by allowing the characters to act out sections of them to each other and to the audience. It also chronicles the shift from the Nineteenth to the Twentieth Century through references ranging from Victorian-era literary figures to the bombing of London during World War II.

Written essentially as monologues with an intended audience of one, letters may be illuminating to read privately but are difficult to translate to the public stage. To keep the literary, character-driven script from growing static, director Rafael de Acha highlights such dramatic events as Shaw's visit to the Holy Land (vividly related by Yule), McLachlan's campaign to become Abbess, and the painful illness of Cockerell's wife. Ultimately, however, the play's success rests on the actors' abilities to bring to life three feisty individuals, to render credibly how much the trio cares for each other. Church delivers a moving, witty, and subtly wry performance as Cockerell, capturing all the nuances of a complex life, including loving yet conflicted feelings toward an invalid wife. Less eccentric and creative than Shaw, less scholarly and disciplined than the Abbess, Church's Cockerell understands his limitations -- he calls himself insignificant and lacking in imagination, and yet he's able to acknowledge his gift for cultivating friendships.

Yule's Shaw delights in his own crankiness, revels in being iconoclastic, offends the Abbess by writing an irreverent book that she considers damaging to the Lord, and persists in being fascinated with how someone as intellectually curious as the Abbess can bear confining herself to the cloistered life. The actor combines winsomeness with selfishness in depicting Shaw, yet the famous playwright remains a quirky personage A less a fully realized individual than Church's Cockerell. And while his fondness for McLachlan is abundantly clear, why he's fond of her isn't.

The fault for that likely lies in Davis's able -- but not completely imagined -- portrayal. McLachlan spent 69 years behind the walls of a convent as part of an order of Benedictine nuns known for their intellectual curiosity and love of study. She wrote innumerable books, including pioneering works on Gregorian chant, the early church music that, for centuries before she turned her attentions to it, had been ignored; ultimately she rose to the position of Abbess. Such leadership must have required a fierce, possibly ruthless intelligence (albeit a spiritual one), the same intelligence that drew Shaw to her. (In the play, he calls her "the enclosed nun with an unenclosed mind.") Yet while Davis depicts her character's serene and maternal nature, as well as her religious discipline, she neglects to explore the woman's shrewder aspects.

Although de Acha fails to coax performances from Yule and Davis that are as multifaceted as one might hope, he has directed a paean to friendship and the life of the mind. It's worth your taking a break from the Internet.

Stage Notes
Drama junkies take note. You may want to head south for the Fourth Annual Key West Theatre Festival, held this year from October 5 through October 15. Festival artistic director Joan McGillis is currently gearing up for the ten-day fete, which will feature six never-before-produced plays -- some have been workshopped -- by writers from Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Miami, and Key West. These will be presented on four Key West stages, all within walking distance of each other. This year's guest of honor, the prolific playwright Romulus Linney (2, The Sorrows of Frederick, Holy Ghosts), will lead a playwrights' workshop on Sunday, October 8, at 1:00 p.m.

In addition to being excited about snagging Linney, McGillis also is enthusiastic about the festival's new work. Along with a reading committee, McGillis pours over new plays throughout the year, responding, as she says, to "plays that read well, catch our interest, on subjects we'd liked to see, that are doable within our budget and technical abilities." Despite such general guidelines, she admits that this year's offerings appear to share a theme. "All the plays seem to be kind of quests for something," she notes. "People are searching for something. Either that resonates in me because I may be searching for something, or it resonates in me because I feel society may be searching for something."

The six offerings include A Play, by J.L. Shroder, daughter of Tropic editor Bill Shroder and a student at the New World School for the Arts, about a student struggling to finish her first play; Keith Huff's Dog Stories, in which an old man and his canine best friend journey across the country, encountering dogs, owners, and various tales; Line of Descent, by Tom Coash, which explores the legacy of war as felt by succeeding generations in one family; Ben Siegler's To My Chagrin, a comedic journey to a high school reunion; The Raft, by Cliff Gardner, who examines the plight of six balseros on the open sea of the Florida Straits; and Peter Ivan Hoffman's Nuclear Family, about a quiet middle-American family rocked by violence.

The festival also features an opening-night gala, poetry readings, play readings, and a "Meet the Playwrights" reception. For a complete schedule of events, plus information on submitting original work for next year's fest, call 292-3725.


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