If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
Sarah Ruhl’s “Dear Elizabeth” at Yale
When is the last time you wrote -- with pen and ink on stationary -- an actual letter to someone? With emails and texting de rigueur, is the lost art of letter writing ever to make a comeback? That question may occur to you watching Sarah Ruhl’s blissfully rendered new play, “Dear Elizabeth”, currently in a world premiere production at the Yale Repertory Theatre. Seeing this literate work shortly after the dreary excess that was “The Killing of Sister George” at Long Wharf, “Dear Elizabeth” didn’t have to try too hard to cleanse the theatrical pallet.
Subtitled “A Play in Letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again”, “Dear Elizabeth” is Ruhl's epistolary play based on the correspondence between the poets. In that regard it is likely to be compared to A.R. Gurney’s classic two-hander, “Love Letters.” At Yale, however, Ms. Ruhl, with apparent creative input from director Les Waters, seems determined to distance herself from that much-produced perennial by giving her slender work far more staging and lots of visual distractions. More about that later.
In the roles of Lowell and Bishop, “Dear Elizabeth” is blessed with two sterling performers at the height of their talents. Jefferson Mays, who has barely taken a breath since dazzling theatergoers last month with his numerous roles in the new musical, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at Hartford Stage, plays the tormented Lowell with quirks and intelligence firmly in place. Mary Beth Fisher is every bit his equal as the sardonic Elizabeth Bishop, a woman who only seemed to realize her worth when Lowell took an interest. They were an odd couple. Lowell had three wives and was bipolar while Bishop was an alcoholic and a lesbian whose lover committed suicide. They somehow found in each other a kindred spirit and their wise, witty and loving letters to each other makes the viewer understand all too well their unique bond. It’s a friendship worth discovering.
As usual at Yale the technical expertise continues to impress. It has gotten to the point now that the theatre’s backstage artists can make just about anything happen on stage, but the question does arise here as to whether they should. There are several visual surprises during “Dear Elizabeth” but at what cost? The stage is flooded twice with water and the moonlit scenery is reflectively lit by Russell H. Champa. Scenic Designer Adam Rigg’s compact setting of two separate offices is nicely efficient but it doesn’t end there. Suffice it to say that if the moon and planets are mentioned in correspondence, you’re probably going to see them appear onstage. There is almost a too-literal take on the prose of “Dear Elizabeth” that at times -- not always but at times -- does distract from the poetry and the actors. It’s as if the creative team was afraid they would lose their audience if they relied just on the writing.
This proves to be an excessive (but not detrimental) concept because with material this good and two actors at the top of their game, “Dear Elizabeth” doesn’t need any extra flavoring to be a savory entree. It is high praise to point out that this play would work just as well on the radio. Give it a listen.
“Dear Elizabeth” continues at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through December 22. For further information and ticket reservations call the theatre box office at: 203.432.1234 or visit: www.yalerep.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.