Hearts and Letters

Theatre Britain's The Day After the Fair: love's masquerade on page and stage

Hardly anyone writes love letters anymore. Sigh. Real billets-doux, the kind penned in inky swirls on creamy paper, have given way to the crude shorthand of instant messages and the tinny squawk of disembodied voicemail. Try wrapping a satin ribbon around those.

Back in the dark ages, B.AOL., as it were, love letters were keepsakes, treasured and tucked away under lavender-scented hankies at the back of bureau drawers. They lay hidden, but never forgotten, as testaments to the one great love of one's life. Decades later, they would be discovered, Bridges of Madison County-style, and read aloud by offspring who would express mild shock at the idea of a nice old lady having once had a steamy love life--on and off paper.

The Day After the Fair, a quaint and touching tribute to the art of the old-fashioned love letter, is the latest from Theatre Britain, the little company of Anglophiles who share the stage at the Trinity River Arts Center. Frank Harvey's gentle and ultimately tragic two-act play, based on the short story "On the Western Circuit" by 19th-century Wessex novelist Thomas Hardy, illustrates the power of the pen to ignite great passion. And like all good dramas with a British accent, it revisits the upstairs-downstairs conflicts that arise when love dares to cross class lines. Gracefully acted by a well-chosen cast and delicately directed by Robin Armstrong, who also designed the period costumes, this is theater steeped in elegance and longing.

Anna (Lauren N. Goode, upper left) is the illiterate housemaid; Charles Bradford (Jack Birdwell) is her lover. But Edith (Sue Birch) writes the love letters that lure him.
Anna (Lauren N. Goode, upper left) is the illiterate housemaid; Charles Bradford (Jack Birdwell) is her lover. But Edith (Sue Birch) writes the love letters that lure him.

Theatre Britain founder Sue Birch stars as Edith Harnham, dour wife of a business-minded beer brewer in a West Country cathedral town in the early 1890s. Married for three years to Arthur (Steven Pounders), Edith has no children, no physical desire for her husband and nothing much to fill her empty days. Her only friend, it appears, is a servant, Anna (Lauren N. Goode), rescued in childhood from poverty in a nearby village and put to work by Edith in the Harnham household. Fluttering around in the background is Arthur's well-meaning but brusque sister Letty (the smack-on wonderful Terry McCracken), who can't help reminding Edith that she ought to be brewing up some little Harnhams pretty soon.

When a traveling carnival sets up in the town, Anna enjoys a flirtation on the newfangled steam-powered carousel with a dashing Londoner named Charles Bradford (Jack Birdwell). They have a one-night fling out at the "earthworks" (a Victorian version of lovers' lane), and Charles, a lawyer, heads right back to the big city. But something about the pretty Anna compels him to write her a love letter, which she's eager to answer. Trouble is she's nearly illiterate.

At last, something to keep Edith engaged. The lady of the house begins an epistolary masquerade as Anna, posting a steady stream of long and revealing letters to Charles, who responds with increasing ardor. He is charmed by "Anna"'s insights and her witty way with words. Marriage is mentioned. At first Edith pretends to write the letters simply as a favor to Anna, a way of getting the poor girl a step closer to the security of a good marriage. But soon, caught up in the first really erotic experience of her life, Edith writes to satisfy her own yearnings. Husband Arthur, obsessed with his beer business, remains oblivious.

The plot thickens, as does Anna's waistline. That night at the earthworks has proven earthier than Victorian values can tolerate. The wedding date is moved up, though the only contact between Charles and Anna is through those letters. What will Charles do when he discovers, if he ever does, that the bright, complicated woman he loves on the page is not the one who will be his wife?

To reveal more details of The Day After the Fair would be to cheat a theatergoer out of its enchanting and rewarding plot twists. The bittersweet ending is preceded by a moment of sudden passion that generates some real heat in this always chilly little theater. Something about a lady in a big-bustled skirt and a good-looking young man in a tight weskit grabbing each other for an illicit kiss appeals to the secret romance novel reader in all of us.

With thick black hair and a pouty mouth, Jack Birdwell, as deceived suitor Charles, looks like he stepped right off of one of those Harlequin paperback covers. Birdwell's talent as a romantic lead has landed him big roles at the Shakespeare Fest, Dallas Children's Theater and WaterTower Theatre over the past year. He's best in fancy costume parts. With a perfectly posh British accent, Birdwell sails right through lines that might sound silly coming from another actor. "To love and to know that one is loved in return is to breathe the very air of heaven," he says in The Day After the Fair. It is to swoon.

There's a lovely, haunting sadness in Sue Birch's eyes that makes her Edith Harnham as romantic and doomed a figure as Olivia DeHavilland's love-starved Catherine Sloper in The Heiress. When Edith swoops into the drawing room wearing a smart new dress on the off chance that the visiting Charles Bradford will sweep her away instead of her servant Anna, her hopefulness is heartbreaking.

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