By Roz Friedman
Jefferson Mays is the most versatile actor we have in the theater today; his gifts remind us of Alec Guiness, although I don't think Sir Alec sang and danced. Mays does so, extraordinarily well. He is the recipient of every award possible and just won accolades for his amazing performance in the musical A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder at Hartford Stage. He seems to slide in and out of his parts, a chameleon who can change personalities in an instant. It would be quite a coup if he won Connecticut Critics best actor in a musical and best actor in a drama in the same year!
Yet, after seeing him in Sarah Ruhl's newest, finely etched and brilliant play, Dear Elizabeth, at the Yale Rep, it is hard to imagine anyone more deft than Mays in portraying the confessional Pulitzer Prize winning poet Robert Lowell. Born in Massachusetts to a wealthy family, Lowell was bright, handsome and charming, but suffered all his life and was hospitalized from time to time with attacks of manic depression. Mays acts out these attacks by falling suddenly to the floor!!! Lowell was introduced to Elizabeth Bishop, seven years older than he, by Randall Jarrell in 1947, and theirs was an instant connection that remained unbroken for the rest of their lives. They supported each other in touching, loving ways, encouraging their best work. Mary Beth Fisher embodies Elizabeth Bishop in a performance so beautifully authentic that one would swear she is this independent poet, who traveled with parakeets and a Toucan, and lived for quite a while in Key West and Brazil. Both actors are Beinecke Fellows.
Ruhl based this work, a literary treasure, on the letters published as part of “Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell,” by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. Directed by Les Waters, during the one hour an a half with one intermission the two poets sit side by side reading their letters to each other or move separately to their side of the stage set, designed by Adam Rigg and lit by Russell H. Champa. A soft blue and green wallpaper covers the back wall; in the center is a simple wooden table and two chairs. Titles in white chalk float on the wall. The first act follows a traditional bent. In the second act, Sarah Ruhl's whimsy breaks through: Lowell, known as Cal for Caligula, climbs through the back wall to reach the large shining moon; Elizabeth rides a set of planets suspended from the ceiling. And water floods the stage several times for no apparent reason. This appears to be a trend.
Both poets traveled. Lowell loves Yadoo, the camp in Saratoga Springs for writers; Elizabeth loves Maine. Many writers are mentioned like Ernest Hemmingway, William Carlos Williams and Elizabeth Hardwick, a fine writer and editor, who was Lowell's second wife. He was returning to her when he died in a taxi at the age of 60. I got a special kick when Bard was mentioned; I attended that college years after Lowell and Bishop partied there.
Original Music is by Bray Poor and Jonathan Bell; Maria Hooper-Costumes.
I do not want to frighten listeners by saying Dear Elizabeth is an intellectual play! Thank g=d it is!
It will play at Yale Rep through December 22.
This review originally aired on WMNR 88.1FM FINE ARTS PUBLIC RADIO