Playwright Sarah Ruhl has taken the genre popularized by A. R. Gurney -- correspondence as drama -- and made it her own. Her play “Dear Elizabeth” has just opened at Yale Repertory Theatre, featuring the excellent performers Jefferson Mays and Mary Beth Fisher.
Let us take nothing from Gurney’s charmingly light-hearted “Love Letters.” But Ruhl’s new play “Dear Elizabeth” moves to another level. She delves far more deeply into the human condition, and her source of material is actual history, not fiction.
In fact Ruhl bases her play on the voluminous thirty-year correspondence between the celebrated American poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Skilled writer that she is, Ruhl found her way through her mountains of material, finding the gold nuggets. Indeed it is a play, with its strong characterizations and its story which builds in intensity, reaching its arc and ultimate resolution.
As to the poets, each admired the other’s work enormously and provided a source of strength and support and constructive criticism through the years. They rarely met in person, as Bishop was constantly wandering about the planet, while Lowell moved as fortune and career dictated.
Should they have married? The thought surfaced in each one’s mind, and occasionally in the letters, but it never happened. Lowell’s tempestuous life was marked by three marriages and frequent mental breakdowns. Bishop’s loneliness and difficulties were affected by a restlessness that drove her across the continent and abroad. She finally found a measure of happiness in a long-term Lesbian relationship, living with her lover in Brazil.
Director Les Waters keeps the set simple and severe, letting his fine actors dominate the stage. Occasionally whimsical touches surface -- such as the moon which Lowell grasps or the water which sloshes beneath his feet. But these distractions are hardly needed, when the material is in the hands of two such impeccable performers. Fisher creates an intense, sensitive creature who keeps her feelings under wraps (except in letters), while Mays’ Lowell is funny, desperate, wildly explosive.
It all works.
This review also appears on nytheaterscene.com