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Regional Reviews by Nancy Grossman

Dear Elizabeth
Lyric Stage Company

Also see Sarah's review of Aida

Ed Hoopman and Laura Latreille
In the age of social media, the concept of corresponding by letter may best be described as quaint or old-world, but the existence of such written communication gives later generations a window into the lives and souls of the authors that will never be rivaled by archived tweets or emails of more recent vintage. Renowned 20th century poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell exchanged more than 400 letters during their thirty-year friendship, and from them playwright Sarah Ruhl has culled a representative selection to illustrate their lives, their art, and the relationship which they both held dear. All of the words in Dear Elizabeth are taken from their letters and from their poetry, and Ruhl lets the characters sprout from the language, crafting a play that feels theatrical and authentic.

The Lyric Stage Company presents the Boston premiere of this "play in letters" which was commissioned by Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, and first performed there in 2012. Lyric Stage Associate Artistic Director A. Nora Long brought the property to the attention of Producing Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos and he handed her the directorial reins for the first time on this stage. Ed Hoopman and Laura Latreille, both veterans of previous productions at the Lyric, bring the two poets to life by blending their interpretations with the historical reality expressed in the writings.

By its nature, Dear Elizabeth has minimal action, but even as it "tells" about these lives, it shows scenes of each in their own environment reciting the contents of a letter, or reacting to news received from the other, as well as some of the rare occasions when Bishop and Lowell spent time together. Long wisely inserts inventive pieces of stagecraft that surprise or delight, succeeding in making the play feel slow-moving, but never boring. The unhurried pace allows us to savor these moments as they unfold and to witness the steady growth of a lovely friendship with incredible staying power.

The set by Shelley Barish consists of one big, cozy room (flanked by a pair of attic spaces) that seems to be in a dingy bungalow, furnished with a writing desk and an overstuffed chair. Props include a tower of precariously stacked books, a gramophone, and a manual typewriter. Karen Perlow's lighting design effectively segments the room for different scenes, and judicious use of projections (designer Garrett Herzig) announces dates and locales, as well as simulating the ocean rolling in over the wood flooring when the couple visits the beach in Maine. Andrew Duncan Will evokes the sound of the incoming tide and handles the challenge of finding the right sound when the poets stand before a microphone to make recordings of their work. The clothing styles by costume designer Emily Woods Hogue are appropriate for the era (late 1940s to 1977), including the swimsuits worn underneath.

It is fair to say that those in the know about Bishop and Lowell may not learn anything new from Dear Elizabeth, and may recognize that there are omissions. However, the sheer volume of their correspondence necessitates cutting and pasting, as it were, and Ruhl's choices provide a portrait with sufficient detail to entice the uninitiated and give the actors the opportunity to inject the nuances. Hoopman captures Lowell's glib, manic characteristics more so than his darkness, and connects seamlessly with Latreille. Her portrayal lets us see more of the range of Bishop's personality and often shows her suffering wordlessly. Both actors bring out the humor that offsets the oft-present gloom in their lives and combine to illustrate the intimacy Bishop and Lowell shared despite their physical distance from each other. The Lyric Stage Company production places the focus on the words, where it should be. Don't just take my word for it—go and listen for yourself.

To read more: "Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell."

Dear Elizabeth performances through November 9, 2014, at The Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-585-5678 or

By Sarah Ruhl, A play in letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and back again;; Directed by A. Nora Long; Scenic Design, Shelley Barish; Costume Design, Emily Woods Hogue; Lighting Design, Karen Perlow; Sound Design, Andrew Duncan Will; Projection Design, Garrett Herzig; Production Stage Manager, Natalie A. Lynch; Assistant to the Director, Alex Lonati; Assistant Stage Manager, Maggie M. Jones; Assistant Dramaturg, Leigh Hall

Cast: Ed Hoopman, Laura Latreille

Photo: Mark S. Howard

- Nancy Grossman

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