BWW Review: Sarah Ruhl's Touching DEAR ELIZABETH; Friendship Through the Mail
Those with a detailed, or even a passing knowledge of the lives and careers of mid-20th Century poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell will certainly have a more insightful experience watching Sarah Ruhl's gently touching DEAR ELIZABETH, receiving a lovely mounting from director Kate Whoriskey of The Women's Project.
But the playwright seems to be going for something more universal than a duo-biography. Taken from the thirty year correspondence between the two, published as WORDS IN THE AIR in 2008, DEAR ELIZABETH, with its text postmarked from around the world, will speak to anyone who can define an important loving relationship in their lives as, "It's complicated."
Pulitzer-winner Bishop, who was lesbian, was left financially stable enough to travel the world on whims. Her love for travel was perhaps the most personal note reflected in her work. Also a Pulitzer recipient, Lowell was twice divorced and his third married ended with his death in 1977.
Both from the Boston area, their admiration for each other's work was immediate, and their letters are full of compliments and professional observations. Their initial friendship subtly grows into an ever-evolving affection, with each seeing the other as that rare person who can understand a life necessitating a balance of solitude and public image. There are slight references to infidelity, depression and alcoholism without full explorations.
As the letters are read from two wooden desks placed on opposite sides of the stage, the couples cast are frequently changing. The run's remaining combinations are Cherry Jones and David Aaron Baker, Ellen McLaughlin and Rinde Eckert and Mia Katigbak and Harris Yulin. Polly Noonan plays the entire run as a kind of stage manager, stationed in an upstage corner, narrating the scattered moments when the two get up and are in contact with each other.
The combination of J. Smith-Cameron and John Douglas Thompson had a formidable chemistry, with his genteelly-mannered Lowell trying to cloak a troubled weariness and her Bishop a bubbly burst of energy and compassion.
DEAR ELIZABETH makes for a charming evening, even without a study guide.