A Correspondence Comes Alive in Dear Elizabeth at Yale Rep

By Amy J. Barry

Subtitled “A play in letters,” that’s exactly what Dear Elizabeth at Yale Rep is -- a dramatization of a relationship between poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. The production is based on an exchange of hundreds of letters, postcards, and telegrams over a 30-year-period that began in 1947, ending with Lowell’s sudden death by heart attack in a taxi in 1977.

 

Playwright Sarah Ruhl culled the correspondence down to include the most poignant, eloquent, humorous, and heartfelt of Bishop and Lowell’s letters, delivered (excuse pun) by polished performers Mary Beth Fisher and Jefferson Mays, under the focused and understated direction of Les Waters.

 

The relationship is platonic -- or perhaps from Lowell’s viewpoint unrequited. Bishop was a lesbian -- although her sexuality remains ambiguous for most of the first act -- and a restless soul who never stayed in one place for very long.

 

Lowell had tumultuous love affairs, married three times, and suffered from increasingly difficult bouts of depression. They were apart more than they were together, but their enduring friendship and respect for one another’s work -- despite its marked differences in style -- acts as an anchor and grounding force that they came to rely on in anticipation of each other’s letters.

 

Fisher captures the observant, witty sensibility of the poet she plays -- reciting Bishop’s beautifully rhythmic lines with clarity and precision, such as the poem “One Art, in which is repeated the phrase “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” And yet Fisher eloquently reads but doesn’t quite convey the passion behind the powerful words. As Bishop, Fisher maintains a reserve, even after her lover commits suicide. She drinks, at times heavily, but it’s taken lightly, and we never learn why.

 

The versatile Mays who recently gave a stellar comic performance in the tour de force musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder at Hartford Stage, easily slides into this more somber, reflective role as the increasingly tortured poet and yet we don’t learn what is at the root of his pain, either.

 

What came before in the lives of either character beyond their letter writing relationship, is a mystery and doesn’t allow us to gain insight beyond what we can read between the lines -- which also gently forces the audience to pay close attention.

 

The thoughtfully designed set by Adam Rigg never changes -- an office in an old building where the characters exist simultaneously and alone. There is an abstract sense of time and place.

 

But Russell H. Champa’s marvelous lighting and Hannah Wasileski’s projections, including old-style typewriter font super titles add plenty of visual diversity and enhance the journey though time and to such places the poets frequented as Key West, Maine, London, and South America.

 

And in Sarah Ruhl’s signature fashion, the mystical departure-from-reality qualities of her previous productions: The Clean House and Eurydice, to name two, is evident in such devices as Fisher’s strapping herself onto a mini solar system and rising into the air after commenting that she could write poetry from another plane. Meanwhile, Mays slogs through water that suddenly floods the stage during a “beach” scene.

 

The nature of their relationship -- as the nature of love itself -- remains uncertain. And yet, although we are left with the sense of the fragility of the human condition, we are also heartened by the characters’ ability to find strength and healing by both connecting with a kindred spirit and through their artistic expression.

 

As Elizabeth Bishop wrote in her notebook: “Sometimes it seems...as though only intelligent people are stupid enough to fall in love and only stupid people are intelligent enough to let themselves be loved.”

 

Dear Elizabeth is at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel Street, New Haven, through Dec.22. Tickets are available online at www.yalerep.org, or by phone at 203-432-1234.

 

This review appeared in Shore Publishing community weeklies, and

online at zip06.com and theday.com.

 

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