GLT’s ‘84, Charing’ funny, warm

Greenwood Little Theatre’s last production of the season, “84, Charing Cross Road,” is a quiet little treasure of a play — well acted, solidly produced and filled with small moments so familiar one leaves the theater feeling as if she just spent the last two hours at dinner with a friend, over a few glasses of wine.

This tale, told in letters between a New Yorker and a Londoner in the 1950s and ‘60s, is funny, warm, melancholy and, most surprisingly, real. Little Theatre actors Connie Black and David Dallas, along with their competent supporting crew, carry it off with warmth and confidence.

Black plays Helene Hanff, a self-described “poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books.” She has discovered Marks & Company of London, a secondhand bookstore run by Frank Doel, played by Dallas, and their friendship is christened in 1949 with Helene’s first successful purchase of a book via airmail.

The production takes place on a split stage, a cozy set with the messy interior of Helene’s New York brownstone on one side and the musty interior of Marks and Co. Books on the other. Books and letters are exchanged, friendships are made, and little else happens except the exquisite unveiling of human interiors — protected and closed at first and opened over time.

Black’s Helene is delightfully free of cliche. A writer, she is indelicate, outspoken and eclectic. She chain smokes and swigs gin from a coffee cup. She struggles to pay the bills. And the thin tie that binds her to England, and ultimately to Frank and his co-workers, is her love of obscure volumes of English literature.

As the years pass, 20 in all from 1949 to 1969, little happens beyond Frank’s kids growing up, the death of a colleague, and two young shop girls leaving to find their own lives elsewhere. Work grounds Helene and Frank, and all they share are words.

“84, Charing Cross Road” does something that stage plays and movie scripts rarely do — visit the territory of ordinary lives and small daily struggles. Helene is more like most of us than we care to admit, dreaming of the day when she will save enough money to go to England and visit the friends she’s never seen. But work and money and dental bills — you know the drill — always come first.

The play, by real-life writer Helene Hanff, started as a magazine article, was turned into a book and was made in the 1980s into a film starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins among a fine cast of supporting character actors.

But the stage play, exactly as it’s staged here at Greenwood Little Theatre, is far more satisfying than the film version. It is built exclusively on the human voice, exploring how much of our lives we pass living in our thoughts and dreams, and it depends exclusively on Hanff’s words and the actors who  interpret them to tell a small, intimate story.

Much is said between Frank and Helene, and much remains unsaid, just as in real life.

“84, Charing Cross Road” reminds its audience that what we don’t say matters just as much as what we say — and that we’re lucky in life to find one soulmate out there who might understand us, even if it’s just a little bit.

Alicia Dallasreviews