Forget A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters.” Ignore those staged readings of the letters between Mrs. Patrick Campbell and George Bernard Shaw. Don’t worry that you’ll never see a revival of Helene Hanff’s “84 Charing Cross Road” about a New York book lover’s 10+year correspondence with a London bookseller
Playwright Sarah Ruhl and her director and frequent collaborator Les Waters have re-set the rules and raised the bar for epistolary theater in their bracing, moving and theatrically exciting production of “Dear Elizabeth,” a chronicle of the literate, tender correspondence between two giants of American poetry, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, which is now enjoying its world premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre.
The two writers, each familiar with and fans of the other’s work, first crossed paths in 1947 when Bishop wrote a gushing fan letter to the Pulitzer Prize winning Lowell hoping to arrange for a brief meeting. Lowell happened to be in the process of preparing a review of Bishop’s 1946 book of poetry, “North and South,” and she felt that he was the only one who was able to connect to the spirit and soul of her work. She also reluctantly but honestly accepted the forthrightness of his criticisms, beginning a nearly 30 year friendship in which each would share, critique and analyze the other’s creativity. They also connected on a more personal level, sharing intimate secrets they frequently could not tell their romantic or marital partners.
Ruhl’s play is not a full compendium of their voluminous correspondence, but instead a carefully selected sampling of the scope and nature of their letters and post cards that offers the audience an idea of the emotional depth of their communication and the searing, yet compassionate honesty with which they commented on their work and their lives. Ruhl makes a strong case that this was the strongest and most important relationship that either experienced, even though they actually spent so little time together.
Waters brings what may at first seem to be a desk-bound, moribund concept to dazzling life through a staging that constantly surprises and thrills, without disrespecting the vibrant, brilliant words at the play’s core. The image of rushing water is used to spectacular effect twice to underscore the pair’s initial connection and the subsequent acceptance of the specific boundaries of their relationship. Dates and locations are selectively projected on the back wall of Adam Rigg’s study-like set which is centered by a long wooden desk at which the duo are often seated while in the process of composing or reading. Two smaller desks surrounded by slight suggestions of offices or writing rooms are provided for Bishop and Lowell at opposite ends of the stage, with wallpaper sandwiched between two side doors (with period specific transoms) appropriately conveying the post-war period.
The letters between the two can be both playful and serious, often simultaneously, which Waters amplifies through such stage business as the sudden appearance of a clothes line on which Bishop dispatches a post card to her fellow correspondent. The two artists’ ascendancy into the stratosphere of poetry is emphasized by two quirky visual similies that describe the pair’s place in the firmament of art.
Ruhl by no means plays down the personal demons that plague each writer, incorporating Bishop’s frequent reliance on alcohol (at one point humorously stopped in mid-scene by an irritated stage manager who grabs her bottle of scotch from her hands) and Lowell’s just as often nervous breakdowns and battles with depression. Through their letters, we get glimpses of their love lives as well, including Lowell’s long yet troubled second marriage to the writer Elizabeth Hardwicke and Bishop’s 16-year relationship with her female lover, Lota de Macedo Soares, at their home in Brazil.
It is rare to feel such an exhilaration in experiencing such characters come to vivid life, but “Dear Elizabeth” benefits from two remarkable, thoughtful performances from the outstanding Mary Beth Fisher and Jefferson Mays. Mays, just seen to delightful effect playing nine different roles in Hartford Stage’s production of “The Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” is here virtually unrecognizable from the over-the-top performances he gave just last month. His bespectacled Lowell with his disheveled black hair is blue-blooded exemplar of New England tradition with the occasional flashes of deviltry and delight that emerge through his literary conversations with his friend. His academic and upper class accent is spot on.
Fisher is equally if not more so astonishing, as she conveys the self-doubts and yearning for acceptance that marked Bishop’s early years, as well as the propriety that kept her from sharing the details of her life as intimately as Lowell notoriously did in his poetry. Fisher elegantly conveys Bishop’s slowly rising confidence as her writing continues to achieve notice while she explores the world, unexpectedly meeting the woman who would be the love of her life while on a supposedly brief side tour through South America. She also has a delightful moment as Bishop somewhat guiltily celebrates her own Pulitzer win.
For the second act, the actors believably age some 10 to 15 years thanks to cues from Maria Hooper’s carefully conceived costumes which stylistically signal the preferences of older characters along with Fisher and Mays’ subtle changes in movement and posture. It’s here that Ruhl lets us see the intensity of Bishop’s and Lowell’s relationship as they both confront and comfort each other as only long-term unconditionally loving friends are capable of doing.
Russell H. Champa’s lighting design accommodates swift changes in time and locale, as well as focusing attention on one character or the other as they stand at opposite sides of the stage. Contrasts between light and dark are used to underline significant moments in their lives, with a particular level of brightness reserved for those all-to-rare occasions when Bishop and Lowell actually end up in the same place at the same time. Bray Poor, the evening’s sound designer, and Jonathan Bell have provided an original score that supports key moments and provides a touching coda at evening’s end.
And let’s not forget the poetry that Ruhl includes. It’s not a lot, just a few snippets here and there, notably Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” which he claims was inspired by Bishop, as well as her “North Haven,” which served as her memorial tribute to Lowell. But those excerpts along with a few others sparkle and soar with vibrant, life-affirming language, as do the evening’s letters.
As Ruhl indicates, Bishop and Lowell understood the limited audience for poetry, even joking upon receiving academic appointments that they were finally getting jobs that paid. But both poets, who each served a term as U.S. Poet Laureate, possessed a clear talent that demanded expression and the world of literature is better for it. Bishop, who often viewed herself as the loneliest girl in the world, was never truly lonely knowing that somewhere in the world her friend Robert Lowell was busy writing, just as she was. This was knowledge that enabled them to commit to their craft and provided a reassuring foundation upon which they could build their legacies.
“Dear Elizabeth” continues through Saturday, December 22, at the Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel Street at York in New Haven. For ticket information and show times, contact the Box Office at 203.432.1234 or visit the website at www.yalerep.org.