A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop: Post Cards From Brazil

By: Apr. 03, 2006
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Michigan-born playwright Marta Góes was raised in the Brazilian town of Petrópolis, situated in the hills surrounding Rio de Janeiro. As a little girl she would sometimes spot an American woman who lived nearby. She recalls adults referring to her as the "friend" of famous architect and political activist Lota de Macedo Soares, but later in life she understood that the women were a couple and the American was Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Elizabeth Bishop.

The playwright took to the poet's work as a fond reminder of home (her 1965 volume, Questions of Travel, was based on her years in Brazil) and was inspired to write A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop. Actress Amy Irving was so taken with the solo play that she asked the author to translate it from the original Portuguese into English and helped to adapt the material for an American audience.

Bishop had the kind of upbringing that almost demands a person become a poet. Her father died in her infancy and her mother was committed to a mental hospital. Her two sets of grandparents alternated the responsibility of raising her, bouncing the child about from Massachusetts to Nova Scotia. After graduating from Vassar, asthmatic, alcoholic and suffering from severe writers block after her first volume of poetry was published, she took to traveling. A hospital stay after sampling some of the local food kept her in Rio longer than expected, and it was enough time to fall in love with Soares, whom she had met previously in New York. Depression, a Pulitzer, a military coup and her lover's mental breakdown contribute to a story that would seem a cliché overload if it weren't true.

In the tricky business of writing a solo play centered around the relationship between two people, Góes' chronicling of Bishop's story is certainly interesting, in a textbook sense, but she fails to deliver any kind of emotional impact. Always the person who is out of town or taking a bath in the next room, we never feel Lota's presence. Much of the monologue is taken from the poet's writings, which doesn't always feel natural as spoken word and the decision to structure the piece as a series of lightening-quick scenes may work as a potential screenplay, but in a theatre it creates too much of a stop-and-start momentum that stifles the flow of the proceedings.

And yet, director Richard Jay-Alexander's production at Primary Stages does a fine job of minimizing the play's shortcomings, delivering an interesting, if flawed, evening. Having Amy Irving as Elizabeth Bishop is his greatest asset. Here's an actress who, even if she wasn't so deft at her craft, could probably get by on stage presence and personal charisma alone. She communicates an exuberance and sweetness in Bishop, something bottled up before arriving in Brazil, while her language remains eloquent and formal. In costume designer Ilona Somogyi's casual collection of summer wears, she has a charming, self-effacing persona that handles light quips gracefully while covering up the suffering inside.

A turntable introduces new set pieces frequently and Russell H. Champa's lights effectively help with the continual change of locale. Set designer Jeff Cowie places the word "Brazil" in the top proscenium corner on a jaunty angle, giving the impression that Zachory Borovay's fuzzy, scenic background projections should be taken as faded picture post cards, making the playwright's succession of quick scenes seem like the hurried scribblings of an American jotting down brief notes to those back home. And though these post card glimpses of Elizabeth Bishop are frequently engaging, nothing beats a nice long letter.

Photos of Amy Irving by James Leynse