Yale Rep's 'Dear Elizabeth' An Elegant Production
By FRANK RIZZO
First impressions: If you are expecting a kind of literary "Love Letters" for this world premiere by Sarah Ruhl ("The Clean House," "Dead Man's Cell Phone") of a piece based entirely on the correspondence between poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, you're in for a pleasant surprise.
Yes, there's the aspect of unrequited love, longing and loneliness as these two intelligent, sensitive and flawed characters exchange missives over a 30-year period. But there's also so much more in this heartfelt, elegant and even playful shaping of the piece by Ruhl and her inventive collaborator, director Les Waters, and actors Mary Beth Fisher and Jefferson Mays. It might just make you stop texting and pick up a pen.
Just letters though? That's kind of static: Not the way Ruhl has crafted the show and Waters has staged it. These are dramatically rich letters that were exchanged over their adult lives, from the first time they meet in 1947 until Lowell's death in 1977 at the age of 60. (Bishop died two years later in 1979 at the age of 68.) They are sometimes lyrical, sometimes trivial, and always conversational, vivid and truthful, making for some of the best duologues on any stage.
There are also interludes where they meet, dance and even, shockingly, have a violent encounter. There are also touches of Ruhl's signature surreal moments: charming, silly, celestial and breathtaking. (Think of the stunning water effect in Ruhl's "Eurypides" at the Rep several seasons back and you'll get the idea.)
Speaking of production values, high praise for Adam Rigg's long horozontal setting that is personal, stark and whimsical. Also keeping the eye and ear engaged throughout are Russell H. Champa's lighting and Bray Poor's sound design.
Do I have to be an English major to appreciate the play?: No, because you first are engaged with the characters as people and watch as their complex relationship evolves, their work as poets progress and the details about their personal lives revealed. (Bishop was a lesbian; Lowell was manic-depressive; both were alcoholics.)
Do we hear their poems?: Several are spoken aloud in ways that emerge naturally from their epistolary conversations and under specific circumstances of their life, demonstrating that poetry best speaks to the heart when mere words fail.
It takes a poet to know a poet, and certainly here a poet-playwright like Ruhl understands the painstaking struggle to find just the right word, the ache of a writer's loneliness, the power of theatrical metaphor and the profound intimacy between artist and audience when it all comes together just right.
And the performers?: Anyone who has seen Mays in the recent "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" at Hartford Stage (not to mention many of his other roles) knows the actor's versatility. Here, it's a perfect lit fit, with the actor subtly communicating Lowell's intelligence, humor and heart -- not to mention his demons. Fisher, primarily known for her work in Chicago, breaks down Bishop's brilliance in all too human ways with personal pain and struggles aplenty. Fisher brings infinite ache to the poem "One Art," upon the suicide of her lover, with an urgent, whispered assist from Lowell to "Write it!" It's a loss we share at play's end at the inevitable parting of the poets.