“Delightful” is not a word that gets much use in my vocabulary, but it’s the one I’ll use to describe “Daddy Long Legs” which I saw Thursday night at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Set in the first decade of the twentieth century, it’s the story of Jerusha Abbott who, when the show opens, is the oldest of the wards of a functional but not very nurturing orphanage. One of the institution’s trustees, Jervis Pendleton, spots Jerusha’s potential from afar and arranges for her to attend college with him paying all expenses on the twin conditions that Jerusha write him one letter each month but that she make no other attempt to contact him or to ascertain his identity.
Much of the play consists of Jerusha using her developing and considerable writing talent to compose letters to this patron who she imagines to be quite old (all she ever saw of him was his elongated shadow one day back at the orphanage, hence the nickname “Daddy Long Legs”). Jervis, in fact, is only a few years older than Jerusha. He is the unmarried and socially awkward though handsome offspring of a very wealthy New York City family.
Jervis, who becomes intrigued by the personality that leaps from the monthly letters, has another connection to Jerusha because his cousin, seemingly by coincidence, becomes one of Jerusha’s roommates at college. Ostensibly to see his cousin, Jervis becomes a frequent visitor to campus where he lavishes attention on Jerusha whose letters to her “Daddy Long Legs” glowingly describe her growing affection for her roommate’s cousin.
In subsequent scenes when Jervis delights in reading these letters, it comes across as an invasion of privacy that unveils a flaw in Jervis’s character. But Jervis is just shy and unsure of himself and not a voyageur, so it all works out in the end.
Megan McGinnis playing Jerusha and Robert Adelman Hancock playing Jervis both gave wonderful performances, especially considering that they are the only actors in the play and they are both on stage throughout the production’s two plus hour run time. “Daddy Long Legs” is directed by John Caird and is based on a novel by Jean Webster. The show continues at the MRT through March 4 and tickets are still available at the MRT website.