Play about love letters lost in translation

Love Letters' Mia Chee (left) and Nelson Chia.
Love Letters' Mia Chee (left) and Nelson Chia.PHOTO: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY

REVIEW / THEATRE

LOVE LETTERS

Nelson Chia and Mia Chee

Esplanade Recital Studio/ Last Saturday


American playwright A.R. Gurney's acclaimed Love Letters (1988) is about two lifelong friends - straitlaced Andrew and troubled, rebellious Melissa - who read out letters they have written to each other over 50 years.

It is also an unusual play.

With minimal action, a sparse set and two actors who read from a script rather than memorise their lines, it was once described by original director John Tillinger as "a piece of chamber music that uses actors as instruments".

Tinkering with the music of Gurney's script - arguably the main star of the show - was always going to be a gamble.

Sadly, this does not quite pay off in Nelson Chia and Mia Chee's recent Mandarin adaptation, which is an assured production but lacks emotional heft.

The main duo in Chia and Chee's Love Letters are Chinese-Americans who go by the names Xinnan and Xiaoman instead of Andrew and Melissa. They become pen-pals in second grade (Primary 2) and continue to pour their hearts out to each other as they go through school, war and marriages to other people.

Straitlaced Xinnan goes to Yale University, becomes a successful lawyer and is eventually elected to the United States Senate.

Meanwhile, Xiaoman leads a turbulent life. Her parents are divorced, her stepfather "bothers" her in her bedroom - an unsettling detail that is never revisited - and she drops out of a series of schools.

She later finds some success as an artist, but her troubles continue and she drifts in and out of psychiatric wards as well as marriages.

One of the paradoxes of letter-writing is that it is both intimate and distant. This is a conceit that works well in Love Letters, whose characters are thwarted lovers - living separate lives - who nonetheless share a deep friendship.

Chia and Chee, co-founders of Nine Years Theatre, are known for their Mandarin adaptations of Western classics. Gurney's play, firmly rooted in the milieu of America's upper-middle-class white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, however, might not have been the best candidate for a trans-cultural adaptation.

The characters occasionally intersperse their speech with English words - Xinnan even quotes from Milton's Paradise Lost. They are equally prone to expressions such as fang fei ji (to stand someone up) and pa tuo (dating), which come from Cantonese. All this can seem oddly disorienting.

Chia and Chee, who are married to each other in real life, are fine actors and delivered solid performances at the Esplanade Recital Studio on Saturday night, carefully sidestepping the trap of sentimentality.

But an older pair of actors might have lent themselves better to this play, which is as much about nostalgia and regret as the trials of young love.

Like Xinnan and Xiaoman, who cannot help looking over the other's shoulders when they meet in person after months of correspondence, one struggles to reconcile the figures on stage with the ones on the page.

The actors were reading out love letters, but sadly the humour and melancholy between the lines did not always translate.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 25, 2019, with the headline 'Play about love letters lost in translation'. Print Edition | Subscribe