BWW Reviews: Sarah Ruhl's DEAR ELIZABETH, Play About Poets, is Poetry Itself
A love story, taken from letters spanning the 30-year friendship between two of America's poets laureate, comes to life in DEAR ELIZABETH, Sarah Ruhl's brilliant new play receiving its world premiere at Yale Rep.
Subtitled "A Play in Letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again," the play combines touching portrayals by Mary Beth Fisher and Jefferson Mays as the poets, excerpts from their works and letters and nifty special effects to craft a satisfying story of a love that never blossomed romantically, but which formed the foundation of a close friendship.
The two meet and begin a correspondence in 1947 when Lowell has started to receive accolades for his work and Bishop is just starting (both would win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award among other honors). The relationship soon deepens with friendship developing beyond the influence they have on each other's work.
The actors read correspondence while, for the most part, seated at a table in an office space designed by Adam Rigg. Capable direction by Les Waters keeps steers the play from being as boring as that sounds. Conveniently placed props simply transform the location for the poets. Fisher dons a hat and sunglasses to begin a letter from Key West, Florida, for example. Locations and some other points of information are projected onto a rear wallpapered wall which opens to reveal its own secrets with the help of a stage manager who has a few cameos to provide a little comic relief. In addition, there's a terrific combination of lighting, sound, projection and water to create an ocean beach where the couple shares one of their few in-person interludes (Lighting Design by Russell H. Champa, Sound Design by Bray Poor, Projection Design by Hannah Wasileski).
The letters and friendship continue long distance for three decades as the poets continue their careers and relationships with other people. Newly divorced, "Cal," as Lowell is known to his friends, is unable to find the courage, or the right time to ask Bishop to be his wife. The opportunity gone, he later marries writer Elizabeth Hardwick with whom he has a daughter. Meanwhile, Bishop, travels to Brazil where she begins a long-term relationship with architect Lota de Macedo Soares.
The poets' friendship and love continues over the years through Bishop's growing dependence on alcohol and Lota's suicide and Lowell's mental illness and third marriage to British author Lady Caroline Blackwood, with whom he has a son. Bishop's poem "North Haven" was written in Lowell's memory following his death in 1977.
Ruhl has used just the right amounts of poetry, information and history to make the story work without becoming dry. Instead, she has given us a play that is exquisite poetry in itself. It's amazingly sad yet funny, intense yet whimsical, deep yet obvious, revealing yet obscure -- all at the same time and both Fisher and Mays capture our imaginations as they creating characters experiencing the wide range of emotions.
For further reading of the correspondence between Bishop and Lowell, you can check out the book "Words in Air: the Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell" published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2010. To experience it, go see DEAR ELIZABETH running through Dec. 22 at Yale Rep. Here's a sneak peek.