By David A. Rosenberg
Beginning in 1947 and lasting 30 years, a time when people actually wrote letters to each other, a correspondence existed between prize poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Out of an exchange that was chaste yet passionate, comes Sarah Ruhl’s bracing “Dear Elizabeth” in its world premiere at Yale Rep.
Bishop's letters to and from Lowell range from poetry (of course) to art, loss, alcoholism, children, mental illness and the nature of love. They’re prisms through which we glimpse two restless souls grounded by having to face and explore life’s doubts and torments, accomplishments and triumphs -- all that’s happening to them in the present tense. “Talking about the past is like a cat’s trying to explain climbing down a ladder,” writes Lowell.
Words intoxicated them. Words impelled reaching for the moon, climbing the planets. In Les Waters’ inventive, sometimes busy production, moon and planets are literal, along with water for the actors to slosh around in. The director transfers poetic images into living form, making abstractions come vividly alive.
Chicago actress Mary Beth Fisher is a mercurial Bishop, deferential and insecure, yet generous, warm, patient, strong. The versatile Jefferson Mays (last seen playing multiple roles of both genders in the musical, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”) whispers and cajoles as someone trying to hold onto his sanity. It’s an observant, intelligent reading of the thrice-married Lowell who once said, “It is hell to realize one has wasted half one’s talent through timidity.” The correspondents are gone; their correspondence endures.