Love Letters: Melissa and Andrew are not Ma & Pa Walton

Love Letters

By A. R. Gurney
Directed by David Rogers
Performed by Michael Learned and Ralph Waite
Victoria Playhouse, Petrolia
August 8 to 26, 2012

Star power has come to Victoria Playhouse in Petrolia. Loud and long applause broke out before the show even started as Michael Learned and Ralph Waite came on to the stage on opening night of Love Letters. This pair is much beloved and warmly welcomed – and by the end of the evening, the applause was justified.

We don’t do that very often in Canada – applaud an actor when he or she makes an entrance. In fact, I’ve only seen it a few times – once last week for Christopher Plummer, and a year ago when Kim Cattrall appeared in Private Lives at the Royal Alexandra. At that time – oops! – the audience was so eager to applaud star power, that they clapped when another blonde came out a minute or so ahead of Cattrall. 

It’s the star power that makes Love Letters enjoyable. Michael Learned is remembered as Ma Walton and Ralph Waite is Pa Walton from the heart-warming TV series that ran from 1972 to 1981. They were the loving, no-nonsense parents of John-Boy and all those other kids that said goodnight at the end of each show. They raised their brood successfully despite the hardships of the Depression and World War II. 

Some of the Lambton County audience had a glimpse of Ms. Learned’s star power two years ago when she starred in Driving Miss Daisy at Sarnia’s Imperial Theatre, and they are happy to see her back in Petrolia. 

But if you are looking for John and Olivia Walton, you’ll be disappointed. This play is the correspondence of Melissa and Andrew. Ms. Learned and Mr. Waite read aloud the letters that Melissa and Andrew they wrote to each other over 50 years of friendship. Both are born into privilege and become friends in their early school days. They read the cute little notes they passed to each other in class, and then they read “I will not write personal notes in class” several times over. Andy goes to a private boys’ school and Melissa continues corresponding with him there. Alas, to Andy’s dismay she marries someone else, and then, by the time she is divorced and single, to her dismay, he marries someone else. Nevertheless, they continue to share their special friendship through their correspondence – good old-fashioned mail.  

Ms. Learned and Mr. Waite are obvious choices for the parts. The warmth and chemistry is already there. Ms. Learned has played the role previously: She obviously doesn’t need the letters in front of her and therefore reaches out to the audience. Mr. Waite relies on the script in front of him, and because he is reading, he doesn’t connect with the audience as often. 

The set is interesting. Each actor sits at a writing desk, where we assume they composed the letters that they are now reading aloud. Overhead gilt-framed classic paintings are hung, giving a look of opulence. 

While the characters Melissa and Andrew seem to grow closer over the years of correspondence, it is interesting to see them grow apart in their personalities. He becomes a stuffy Republican senator, while she evolves into a Bohemian artist battling personal demons. Nevertheless, the audience roots for them, feels the love between them and hopes they eventually get together. And at the risk of spoiling the ending, they do get together, but it’s not the happily-ever-after ending one might expect.

Go for the star power – it is a thrill to see this couple who came into our homes on the TV screen for so many years. But enjoy the play: Like The Waltons, this a thought-provoking and touching relationship story.  

Love Letters continues with eight shows a week at Victoria Playhouse Petrolia until August 26. Call the box office at or for tickets or visit

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A member of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association, Mary Alderson reviews shows at area theatres and posts blogs at .

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