Set designer Adam Rigg provides, for the most part (with a few notable exceptions), one long room. The poets sit behind a wooden table and oftentimes address the audience rather than each another. Waters does break the pattern every so often. This includes some delightful dancing during an interlude.
Bishop was often drinking while Lowell suffered bouts of depression and came to find himself in McLean Hospital outside of Boston. Lowell, whom she calls Cal, was married more than once. Bishop had a longtime relationship with Lota, her female lover, with whom she lived in Brazil. In addition to hearing responses to the selected poems, Ruhl has edited, modified, and positioned specifically to reveal each writer's character traits.
Each offers constructive commentary about the other's poetry. Yet the most revealing and intimate passages within Dear Elizabeth are personal ones. A third of the way through the piece, Bishop writes, "I wish you great happiness in your marriage and I do hope your troubles are over now for good. You have had too many lately for one person. I've been having quite a few of my own, but things seem to have straightened out pretty much now." She goes on for a time about Yaddo, the retreat for artists, and then her next letter begins, "Dear Cal, I was up to New York briefly last weekend and tried to get hold of you but you were out ... I do hope you're feeling better ... With love, Elizabeth."
Next, we receive Lowell's response: "Things are much better with me. Psycho-therapy is rather amazingSomething like stirring up the bottom of an aquariumchunks of the past coming up at unfamiliar angles, distinct and then indistinct. We sail now for Europe on the 28th, and plan to go to New York before. Now, I think there's no escaping us for you. In any case, don't slip away."
The actors are graceful and, like some of the poetry, lyrical. Mays, who has shown his versatility through roles in shows like I Am My Own Wife and, recently, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder (at Hartford Stage), embodies Lowell as animated and spirited. Fisher's Bishop is intellectually sharp and caring, too. Bishop gained self-esteem as she continued to write. The performers' hair is gray during the second act as Mays and Fisher perceptibly and accordingly age. Moreover, they have quickly developed a sense of one another. A glance from Lowell toward Bishop and vice versa is significant and worth more than a simplistic gesture. Their bond is all about mutual understanding.
Sarah Ruhl's plays are carefully drawn. The production of Eurydice at Yale Rep six years ago remains, for me, astonishing. This time, the playwright has clearly studied each writer and locates the urgent compassion within their relationship. That Ruhl as been able to craft such a unique play from letters is impressive and demonstrates her sensitivity.
The audience learns of time sequencethe progression of days and yearsthrough projections (designed by Hannah Wasileski) which appear from time to time behind the actors. Bray Poor and Jonathan Bell add original and appropriate music. All of this fuels this distinctive and, finally, touching hour and three quarters of art.
Dear Elizabeth: A play in letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and back again continues at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through December 22nd. For tickets, visit www.yalerep.org or call (203) 432-1234.
- Fred Sokol