Lamplighters Community Theatre’s 78th season opens with a drama, based on Helene Hanff’s autobiography, which has been adapted several times for the screen, television, and radio. What makes the material challenging to produce is that the main characters communicate only through letters.
In 1949, New York writer Helene Hanff (Kelly McKenna) dreams of buying literature at Marks & Co Booksellers, 84 Charing Cross Road, London. After writing a letter, she and the store’s manager, Frank P. Doel (Brian P. Evans) become pen pals. Helene hopes to travel abroad to meet Frank and his colleagues, yet as obstacles occur, her plans keep getting delayed.
As viewers enter the theater, O.P. Hadlock’s set design instantly creates an impression. He uses a small part of the space for Helene’s apartment. While her home is plain with intentionally unadorned walls, Marks & Co Booksellers has a classic British merchant décor: numerous bookshelves, desks, and a sole coat rack. Xavier Luevano’s lighting makes the store brighter and visually inviting in comparison to Helene’s darker and simple abode.
Evans has an animated presence whenever he is on stage. He stands out not only because of his eloquent delivery, but for the way he visually, physically reacts to Helene’s letters.
Sad to say, Helene never becomes as interesting a character as Frank. This has less to do with McKenna’s performance than the dialogue she must speak. Though writing for television sounds like an exciting job, her issues are mundane and personal compared to Frank’s ordeals. In the beginning, Helene struggles somewhat financially, then she needs to have her teeth capped, and later on has to move apartments. Her situations are not as compelling as Frank who lost loved ones and lives in a city that is slowly recovering from the destruction caused by World War II.
Although Frank is a sympathetic conversationalist, it does not change the fact that the overall narrative is repetitive. Most chats in Act I have less to do with moving the plot forward and instead involve the two bibliophiles discussing the books Helene wants to order. Exchanges that revolve around analyzing stories could make for interesting dialogue. However, they rarely go into detail about the publications. The letters are primarily about Helene’s wish list for books she wants to acquire for her collection.
Act two has more character development and the bond grows between unlikely friends. But there are too many instances where the letters do not give theatergoers insight into their worlds.
Director Steve Murdock notes that he has been charmed by this work since he “was a much younger man.” Though some might be just as moved as Murdock, others will find the plot too slight to make for a two-hour evening at the theater. In order to make a bigger emotional impact, there needs to be more depth to the letters spoken from the page.