Jane Park, Contributing Photographer

Under hazy purple lighting, a wooden table sits at the center of the stage in the Saybrook Underbrook. On it are two glasses of water and two large stacks of paper. Empty chairs await the arrival of two lovers, who prepare to transcend time and place through their letters to one another. 

Written by A.R. Gurney, the play “Love Letters” unfolds through the epistolary form — an entire love story narrated by the decades-long correspondence between Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd II, within the backdrop of east coast elitism and affluence. 

However, the Asian American Collective of Theatermakers’ production of “Love Letters” departs from typical productions of the play. With four different pairs of actors playing Melissa and Andrew on different nights, this production will showcase the same love story through different iterations — all in the overarching context of an Asian love story. 

“When you’re writing letters to each other, it’s because you’re at a distance and you’re literally separated, but in theater, you are literally together,” said Sam Ahn ’25, who directed the show and plays one of the Andrews. “The end message of the play is an optimistic and hopeful one, which is that being together live is better than texting, emailing, even letters — that being together is when we can love each other best.”

Four performances of the AACT’s production of “Love Letters” will take place between April 6 and 8. 

Projected behind the actors will be a quote from Jay Caspian Kang’s book, “The Loneliest Americans.” Using Kang’s words as a framework, the production aims to portray Asian American loneliness as the result of failing attempts to assimilate to whiteness and the hollowness of the label of “Asian-American.” 

“The Asian diaspora is so variegated that the experiences of one Asian-American is so different from that of another Asian-American, particularly by ethnic group,” Ahn said. “Loneliness comes from trying to connect, when you don’t have anything to connect about… besides you just decided to call yourself [Asian American]. I find that compelling and compatible with the message of the play, which is trying to connect with each other when you’re lonely.”

According to Ahn, “the [play’s] characters, at their core, are extremely lonely,” an experience that resonates with the Asian-American experience. 

The last two sentences of the projected quote by Kang reads: “There are no shared struggles between, say, the wealthy child of Indian doctors… and the first generation undocumented immigrant from Fujian province… How do you create a people out of silly connections? And yet, what else are we supposed to?” 

For Ahn, the answer to Chang’s question lies in love.

“What else are we supposed to do?” Ahn said. “I think the answer just has something to do with love. That’s not something we talk a lot about in politics. But I think it is something we should talk about. Empathy, love, these kinds of things are things that should define Asian America.”

With few props and characters, most of the play’s movement occurs through the reading of letters. As stage manager Risha Chakraborty ’25 notes, the relatively minimal and sparse nature of the set helped create a viewing experience as “authentic to letter writing as possible.”

Though the characters exchange letters from different parts of their lives, from early childhood to their fifties, and send greetings from all over the world, the two actors sit at the same wooden table, merely inches apart from one another. According to Chakraborty, the desk plays an important role in communicating the essence of Melissa and Andrew’s relationship — as well as the heightened intimacy of letter-writing. 

“The fact that the desk is the center prop is really crucial to highlighting communication and the love that is conveyed between these two characters via letter writing,” Chakraborty said. “What’s really interesting is that [the desk] puts them in close proximity, even though we’re trying to portray that there’s this physical distance. It highlights the emotional proximity, and the writing is creating this bridge between the two characters.”

This idea of physical separation and emotional intimacy is also channeled through the lack of eye contact between the two characters. As one actor reads their letters, the other smiles mischievously or glares into the distance, creating the illusion that the characters are responding and reacting to the letters in real time. Despite this, the two characters never meet eyes. 

“There’s a note at the beginning of the script that says, ‘They don’t look at each other but listen to each other intently when they’re talking, as though they’re listening to like a voice coming very far away,’ or on the radio or something,” O’Connor said. “[The characters] listen very, very, ravenously for it… [The playwright] wants there to be this sense of genuine separation through letters.”

The first letters Melissa and Andrew exchange with each other are written when the characters are six years old. As more and more letters are read, audience members witness a love that ages and develops with the characters themselves. With most of the actors’ movements and the physical landscape staying constant throughout the show, the indication of time passing is dependent on the script itself and actors’ speech and mannerisms. 

Time flows differently in this production of “Love Letters.” Most productions of this play feature older actors, acting from the perspective of people looking back on earlier parts of their lives. With most of the cast members in their early twenties, Ahn wanted to portray young Melissa and Andrew not only reading letters from their past but reading letters from the future.

While the power of this play “comes usually from looking back,” Ahn hoped to emphasize the “haunting” nature of looking into one’s future. Similarly, for Thomas Kannam ’26, who plays the role of Melissa, imagining their character’s older self had personal significance.

“On a personal level, we often don’t see older, trans and non-binary people in media,” Kannam said. “That’s not a reality for a lot of them. So it has been really exciting for me to play with and imagine myself and the elders who came before me who didn’t make it there and how their life played out from an acting perspective.”

With a total of four pairs of actors performing throughout Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, the actors have created unique interpretations of Andrew and Melissa’s relationship. Despite these differences between stagings, Ahn stated that an element of trust is an important presence in all of the performances. 

The chemistry between actors was formed over a rather short rehearsal period, as each pair only practiced with each other for two two-hour rehearsals. However, finding an intense intimacy between actors was a crucial element in truly evoking Andrew and Melissa’s love story.

“This is such an intimate text,” Ahn said. “When you’re working with just another person, that’s an intimate connection. You have to trust the other person more, just because you are wholly dependent on them, and they’re wholly dependent on you. Trusting somebody as a theatrical exercise, that’s the antithesis of the play. The play is all about, not completely giving yourself over to another person and being blocked by loneliness and yourself.”

“Love Letters” will be performed at the Saybrook Underbrook.