Before there was texting and email and cellphones, there were letters — handwritten, heartfelt and even sentimental.
They were a way for young lovers to confess their feelings. They were a bridge between husbands and wives during war times. They are those tattered and so delicate bunches of paper collected in memory boxes that are read in private decade after decade.
To celebrate the art of written correspondence, director Tom Presler, the American Legion and actors Vikki Goodman and Terry Smith are staging the Pulitzer-nominated play “Love Letters,” which opens Valentine’s Day and will have four showings through Feb. 19.
Presler, who is known around Lodi for organizing the annual Zombie Walk, read the classic play in 1993 and fell in love with the honest and timeless story, told through a lifetime of exchanged letters between two people who met in the second grade. Through relationships, careers, children and loss, the characters become soul mates.
“It’s about all the complexities that come with making a connection that is this deep,” Presler said.
Taking the stage
On stage, Goodman becomes the free-spirited Melissa, leaning back in an overly large chair; her flowing purple dress falling over her legs and down to her feet in black strappy heels. Her long nails are painted and her fingers are decorated with large faux diamond rings and feathers peak out from her mid-length locks of hair. She has a little attitude. A little spice. It’s all part of the character, but it might be a little of herself, too.
“Well, I do have a sarcastic sense of humor,” she said.
Presler met Goodman at the Zombie Walk, and it was if the “Love Letters” character, Melissa, was standing before him.
With her own artistic background as a photographer and her overall personality, she fit Presler’s dream vision of the play’s comedic and free-spirited artist. Coincidence? Maybe, though he says the elements of this play have just fallen into place.
“Everything about this has been so serendipidous,” Presler said.
Terry Smith plays opposite Goodman. In the role of Andrew, he is the sometimes stuffy senator who has a passion for letter writing. He writes and reads his letters at a wooden desk, and always — or almost always — says the proper thing.
Smith is a theater guy at heart. He has been performing for 15 years, and performed black comedies with the Tokay Players. He’s also a lover of words.
“Writing is important in all forms,” he said.
A final valentine
“Love Letters” isn’t your typical play. Korean War veteran A.R. Gurney wrote it with only two characters — two characters who only communicate with lines of letters that are meant to be read. There is no physical interaction. No big effects. Just words.
Presler said the uniqueness of this play is a small, intimate show as opposed to a concert. “Love Letters” is simply like an acoustic, stripped down show that focuses on character study, he said.
It may be unconventional, but it works with the two characters.
“Vikki is bringing her own energy to this, just by being honest,” Presler said. “Terry is one of the most talented theater people you’ll ever meet.”
Presler and Goodman each have their own personal motivation for this production of “Love Letters.” It is a dedication, of sorts, to loved ones they both lost this last year.
In April, Goodman lost her best friend and the father of her children, Gene, to a heart attack. The two were married in their twenties, though they divorced seven years later. However, in 2006, the two were reunited and they realized they were soulmates. They remained together until he died.
This is Goodman’s first time on stage. As a photographer, she likes to stay behind the camera. But she does this in honor of Gene, who was never shy, and who she knows would be proud of her.
“I feel almost like Gene is here with me,” she said, adding that she thinks he would be proud of her for taking on this role.
Presler, too, lost his best friend and girlfriend, Lara Taylor, in March. The couple had shared similar letters during their time together, though he never understood his connection to the play until after her death.
“Love Letters” is his final valentine to Taylor.