Epistolary play 'Love Letters' tells of a relationship over a lifetime

Actors Bae Jong-ok, left, and Jang Hyun-sung perform A. R. Gurney’s play “Love Letters,” which runs at the Seoul Arts Center in southern Seoul until Nov. 13. [PARK COMPANY]

Two actors, reading letters for 90 minutes straight.

In the play “Love Letters,” which is currently running at the Seoul Arts Center in southern Seoul until Nov. 13, lead actors take turns reading out loud 333 letters that the male and female protagonists write to each other over the span of 47 years.

The play takes an epistolary form, and, spoiler: The actors do not even look at each other during the performance except for one brief moment in the final scene — just as the playwright A. R. Gurney (1937-2017) ordered for the 1988 premiere.

The story centers around two characters — Melissa and Andrew — who first meet in elementary school. Over the span of half a century, they share their emotions by writing to each other until their later years, during which they become an artist and a senator. Although physically apart most of the time, and each married to different people, they remain spiritually closer to each other than to anyone else in their entire lives.

As the play solely relies on pure acting skills — no dramatic effects or physical movements other than reading letters — it is considered a textbook for the art. And because the play requires no memorization of lines, it has been a favorite among busy big-name Hollywood actors like Elizabeth Taylor, Sigourney Weaver, Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson. The Korean premiere was in 1995.

For this year’s production, veteran actors Bae Jong-ok and Jang Hyun-sung came together for the first time.

“It’s a play that gets harder and harder the more you perform it,” they told the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, during an interview last month at the Seoul Arts Center.

Actor Bae Jong-ok performs in "Love Letters." [PARK COMPANY]

“At first, I simply thought I could enjoy myself since I didn’t have to memorize any lines,” said Bae. “But it turned out to be much more difficult than works that require you to physically move a lot. Because you have to perform without looking at the other actor, you must have absolute trust in the other actor.”

“Life passes by so cruelly before you can even ponder what it is,” said Jang. “This play also flies by as you’re listening to Bae read out her letters. It shocked me that this form of play can express such sophisticated emotions solely through letters.”

The play starts with a thank-you note exchanged between Melissa and Andrew after being invited to a birthday party, and ends with a letter mourning someone’s death. Both characters are born into affluent backgrounds, but Melissa’s life is riddled with instability following the divorce of her parents. Andrew is romantically attracted to Melissa but distances himself in order to achieve his dreams in high society. The two are pure-hearted and honest in the letters, but their conversation slowly becomes estranged from real life, as Gurney intended to satirize the false consciousness of the American high class.

“The two people portrayed in the letters, and their actual versions existing in real life, are so different,” said Bae. “I thought the playwright was amazing for highlighting that estrangement through letters.”

Actor Jang Hyun-sung performs in "Love Letters." [PARK COMPANY]

“Just looking at Melissa’s life, it felt like something was poking me internally,” said Jang. “That force was what propelled my acting forward. The scene that left the biggest impression on me was when Melissa, after life has left her tattered, writes ‘If only we had…' and ends the letter with ellipsis.”

“Love has a million faces,” he continued. “There’s the excitement and longing, and on the other side there’s pain, or loss of someone you’ve known for a long time in your life. It comes in various, complicated forms. This play is not about impactful events or a grandiose narrative, but it follows someone’s life up-close. And that brings back sentimental feelings that we’ve all experienced in life.”

Because the play requires minimal physical expressions and simply portrays the emotions through reading, Jang said, “after going through two-thirds of the play, my back hurts and I want to jump out of my seat.” Bae likened the performance to meditation: being left solely with internal emotions and restricted movement.

“'Love Letters' came to me at the perfect time; for my current age, and the energy that I currently have,” Bae said. “The more I perform it, the more I find myself immersed in the play. That’s the charm of theater performances; it’s happening now and only now.”

That is also why Bae, who debuted in 1985 and rose to stardom on the small screen, challenged herself to live theater in her 30s. She said she went to the New York after filming the hit KBS drama “Lies” (1998) as she was “at the end of [her] rope.”

“In those days, the only role that was given to female actors over 35 was that of a housewife,” she said. “I was agonizing over what kind of actor should I live as, and that’s when I saw Tiffany’s works at the Metropolitan Museum. I had only pictured jewels when I thought of Tiffany, but the works made me realize that this person also worked restlessly on paintings. And I thought to myself that I should never stop either; that I should keep dreaming of my path without compromising with reality.”

Even after starting live theater, some people asked her why she was bothering to perform in plays when she's not good at it.

“At first, many people would tell me that I’m awkward, and that my charisma shown on television was nowhere to be found on the live stage,” she said. “Most people said they thought I'd try for a little while and then give up. But I kept going out on the play stage because I had this thirst that TV series could not quench. I wanted to mature as an actor. I still learn a lot from my time on the stage.”

Actors Park Jung-ja, left, and Oh Young-soo perform A. R. Gurney’s play “Love Letters,” which runs at the Seoul Arts Center in southern Seoul until Nov. 13. [PARK COMPANY]

Veteran actors Park Jung-ja and Oh Young-soo, the latter best known globally through the hit Netflix series “Squid Game” (2021), have also been cast as the lead couple.

“The magic of this play is that actors almost 80 years old, without pretending to be younger, feel like 11- and 12-year-olds writing to each other as soon as the performance starts,” Jang said.

“One director asked me, how can live plays exist in today’s age of so many different kinds of media,” Jang said. “You have to be at a play to watch it, and you can’t just replay it anywhere. But I think that’s actually the power of plays — breathing together with the actors and getting their energy. What could ever replace that?”