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Couple takes center stage for 'Love Letters'
It might go down as one of the oddest first dates on record.
They sat in two cars side by side, facing in opposite directions, with engines idling. Through open driver’s side windows, they chatted into the night in a police department parking lot in the city of Chicago Heights.
Bruce and Gloria Hartley had only met a couple hours earlier at a Parents Without Partners meeting.
“I was taking attendance the night he came in,” Gloria said. “He came up to the table and I looked at him and said, ‘Oh my,’ and something clicked.”
As they talked from their cars after the meeting, they just couldn’t drive away.
Both were divorced with two children, but would soon find they had much more in common.
“We must have talked about five-to-six hours,” Bruce said. “We were just chatting about, ‘What do you think about this? What do you think about that?’ Our thinking was in full agreement on a lot of things.”
“We talked about anything and everything,” Gloria said. “Then we decided maybe we should stop this and go home, which we did, but then we got on the phone.”
That May evening in 1964 led to marriage a few months later. This August, they’ll celebrate 50 years together.
“That’s pretty good for second timers,” Bruce said.
The couple, which has called Oak Harbor home for 18 years, has decided to do something unique together this year.
They will take part in a nontraditional play that is being performed at the Whidbey Playhouse in Oak Harbor this month and opens Thursday night.
The play, “Love Letters,” involves mostly real-life couples sitting side by side and reading aloud love letters. Not their own, but the letters of the play’s two main characters who carry on a long distance relationship through letters that started in the second grade and continued through marriage, divorce and into a still separated middle age.
Although Bruce Hartley spent ample time working behind the scenes of dramatic productions in high school and college in his hometown of Walla Walla, this will be the first time he’s stepped out from behind the curtain.
He’s branching out at age 86.
“This is the first time he’s opened his mouth and wanted to be on stage,” Gloria said. “It was his idea.”
Bruce’s biggest concern is the lighting and whether he’ll be able to read the script. But he’ll have the comfort of a familiar companion at his side.
The Hartleys are one of 14 married couples who will be featured in “Love Letters,” a play written by A.R. Gurney that premiered on Broadway in 1989.
In recent years, actor Robert Wagner and his wife, Jill St. John, have traveled around the country performing the play.
At the Whidbey Playhouse, each of the two acts will be read by different couples.
For Valentine’s Day only, there will be performances in two different locations Friday night: the Whidbey Playhouse and Coupeville Recreation Hall.
The off-season play is a fundraiser for Whidbey Playhouse improvements.
“It’s just really a charming play,” said Stan Thomas, who is the director but also acts with his wife, Geri, on the show’s final production Feb. 23.
“It’s a non-traditional love story told in a non-traditional way. It is moving. It is funny. It is bittersweet. It’s really well-written.”
The words are so moving that some of the actors and actresses had trouble holding back their emotions during rehearsals.
“The actors make it work,” Thomas said. “They have to connect emotionally to the letters themselves. They have to read them as if they were the ones who had written them. It’s not simply reading letters.”
The script was compelling enough to get Bruce and Gloria Hartley on stage for the first time.
They’ve experienced some of life’s challenges posed in the play, becoming united after both had gone through divorces early in life.
They brought together four young boys under the same roof, then had their own daughter a year later.
Bruce spent a career traveling to different parts of the world, holding the title of international director of quality assurance, among other titles, for Libby’s and later Nestle.
The family moved with Bruce’s job, going from Illinois to Wisconsin, back to Illinois, then to New York.
“I had a father who traveled. I knew what it was like. I knew what was required of it,” Gloria said. “My background was a teacher. I figured I could handle a class of five.”
“She made me what I am,” Bruce said. “If I had stayed a bachelor, I don’t know what would have happened to me. She gave me stability. She took care of the kids when I traveled all over the world. The fact that I was free to do that made my career.”
The road started off a little bumpy, however, Gloria said.
“The first year we married, we put two families together, moved twice, lost three parents and had a child,” Gloria said. “Talk about stress levels. We looked at each other after that year was over and said, ‘If we can make it through this, we can make it through anything.’ So far, we have.”
Gloria joked that the real adjustment came after Bruce retired when she had her husband around “24/7.”
That transition came two decades ago after the couple settled in Oak Harbor.
“Being 10 years older than my wife, if we leave this world in the order we go in, I go first, so I wanted for her to be comfortable if she survived me,” Bruce said. “When I retired, I couldn’t figure out where I wanted us to go.”
The decision was placed on Gloria. She remembered a place they had visited shortly after they first met in the same state where Bruce was raised.
“She chose Whidbey Island,” he said.
“He couldn’t understand how I wanted to be so far away from home,” Gloria said.
Now, as they peek out their living room window and stare at Puget Sound and daily shows of eagles soaring near Polnell Point, they couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.