Can two people fall in love, even if they never meet face to face?
Author Helene Hanff suggests that they can in her book, 84 Charing Cross Road. She should know -- the book tells the story of her 20-year correspondence with Frank Doel of Marks & Co., an antiquarian bookseller in London.
Hanff was searching for books she couldn’t find in New York City when she ran across an ad about Marks & Co. and wrote to the shop in 1949. Doel wrote back, and thus began a long-distance friendship, not just with Doel, but with other Marks & Co. staff members as well.
Over the next 20 years, Hanff exchanged Christmas packages and birthday gifts with her British friends. But it was her friendship with Doel that seemed to grow into something more.
Although Hanff always planned to visit Doel at Marks & Co., she didn’t get there until it was too late. Doel died in December 1968 and the bookstore eventually closed. In 1970, Hanff’s book 84 Charing Cross Road was published.
In 1971, Hanff did visit 84 Charing Cross Road and the empty book shop. She described this scene in another book, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, that she wrote in 1973.
Though Hanff’s book and the resulting film and stage play aren’t well-known, her fans are truly devoted. They still visit 84 Charing Cross Road to see the building that housed the shop, which is marked with a plaque that tells its history.
Savannah Community Theatre is presenting the stage version of 84 Charing Cross Road Nov. 9 through Dec. 2. “I pick the shows based on what I think the audience is going to be,” Director Tom Coleman says. “There is pretty much a niche for everyone. With this one, I’m looking at the 40 and over crowd.”
After seeing the film version, Coleman ordered the script for 84 Charing Cross Road. “I really think this is a great story, and I loved the fact that it’s true,” he says. “Everyone who read it said, ‘This is great.”
Not that the play has been easy to produce. “The theater is a small space and there are three settings -- her apartment, the book shop and all the locations outside,” Coleman says. “I had to sit down and block it piece by piece.”
The strength of the play is that the characters are interesting, Coleman says. “Everyone says it’s a love story,” he says. “He’s married and they never meet, yet their relationship grows.
“I told the actors they have to show it throughout the play,” he says. “He’s very proper and she’s a crazy Brookliner. All his letters are addressed to ‘Miss Hanff’ while she calls him ‘Frankie.’
“Eventually, he begins signing his letters as ‘Frank,’ then ‘Yours, Frank,’” Coleman says. “The very last letter he wrote before he died was signed, ‘Love, Frank.’”
Coleman is directing a cast of 16, including four children who alternate in two roles. Renee DeRossett plays Helene Hanff, and Jeffery Hall is Frank Doel.
“It’s a beautiful story,” DeRossett says. “It’s a little different from anything I’ve ever done.”
Although the play is a drama, Hanff’s character brings a lot of humor. “She is so intelligent, but she has wit and a sense of humor,” DeRossett says.
The part isn’t an easy one. “I do have a million lines,” DeRossett says. “It’s so difficult to learn because it’s so moving. I’ve never experienced anything like it before.”
Over the 20 years the play covers, the characters grow. “They go through change and evolve,” DeRossett says. “The way Tom is staging it is so beautiful. He is very passionate about the piece.
“We’re going to take the audience on a journey through that 20 years,” DeRossett says. “When I first looked at the script, I could feel the personality and beauty in it.”
DeRossett has enjoyed working with Hall. “He’s extraordinary,” she says. “The women are going to love him. He’s a beautiful man.”
Hall, a director and actor who recently returned to his hometown of Savannah, has the challenge of transforming Doel. “He’s a very reserved British bookseller,” Hall says. “His lie is such a very boring life.
“Then he receives a letter from this wacky woman in New York,” Hall says. “They start a correspondence and you can see him start to loosen up. Eventually, they are maybe more than friends. It’s nothing sexual, just emotional.”
Playing a staid, reserved character is a change for Hall. “I’m a guy who does comedy,” he says.”Helene’s role is comedic, but Frank’s is serious.
“This is the first time I don’t have any gags or laugh lines,” Hall says. “I’ve had to really put myself into this one. I thought, ‘I’m really going to have to act.’”
Hall has been appearing in local theater productions for 15 years. He recently moved back to Savannah from Swainsboro, where he promoted Vidalia onions for National Onion Labs Inc.
“I was coming back to Savannah every weekend,” Hall says. “I started doing Who Wants to Kill a Millionaire? (a dinner theater production also put on by Savannah Community Theatre). Finally, I said, ‘I miss my friends, I miss my life’ and knew it was time to move back.”
Since he’s been back, Hall has done nothing but acting. “I’m really excited about this show,” he says. “But when Tommy asked me to do the show, I said, ‘Are you out of your mind?’
“It’s really fun working with Renee,” Hall says. “The rest of the cast is fun and supporting. I hit the ground running. I rehearse all day and night. I haven’t had time to enjoy coming home, but I’m so much happier.”
Hall believes audiences will love 84 Charing Cross Road as much as he does. “It’s a really good solid show,” he says. “Considering the subject matter, people might think it’s boring. It’s absolutely not boring.”
“It’s something everyone would love,” DeRossett says. “There’s something for everyone in it. A lot of people probably never heard of it, but it is quite a piece.”
“If you’re looking for something with a very nice story, this is it,” Coleman says. “It’s funny and a little poignant. It’s an uplifting way to spend two hours. It’s not noisy and loud -- it’s pretty.”
Savannah Community Theatre will present 84 Charing Cross Road on Nov. 9, 10, 16, 17, 20 and 30 and Dec. 1 and 2 at 7:30 p.m. Sunday matinees will be presented Nov. 18 and 25 at 3 p.m. Tickets for all Thursday performances are $10, tickets for Friday and Saturday are $25 for adults, $20 for seniors 55 and up and $15 for students and children, and $15 for all Sunday performances. Call 898-9021. The theater is located at 2160 E. Victory Dr. For information or to purchase tickets online, visit www.savannahcommunitytheatre.com.