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Sarah Ruhl’s theatrical assemblage of a smattering of the hundreds of letters sent between famed 20th century poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell has a distinctly high-toned sensibility. Bound to be best appreciated by those at least slightly familiar with the poets’ lives and work, Dear Elizabeth is an epistolary romance for the literary set, a sort of graduate course for fans of A.R. Gurney’s similarly structured Love Letters.
Originally seen at the Yale Repertory Theatre three years ago, the piece is being given its New York premiere by the Women’s Project Theater in the company’s new Upper West Side home. As is so often the case with Gurney’s popular work, Dear Elizabeth features weekly rotating casts, beginning with theatrical veterans Kathleen Chalfant and Harris Yulin. Among those scheduled to appear are Cherry Jones, Becky Ann Baker, Peter Scolari, J. Smith-Cameron, David Aaron Baker, Ellen McLaughlin and John Douglas Thompson.
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Presented on a stage littered with battered suitcases and trunks, a vintage phonograph and a pair of old wooden desks, the piece is made up of readings of consequential letters between the two poets, written during their thirty-year friendship. Although their relationship was very close and bordered on the romantic, it seems to have been platonic. Each certainly carried on separate romantic lives; Lowell married three times, and the love of Bishop’s life was a Brazilian woman, referred to in the piece only as Lota, who committed suicide in 1967.
Ruhl’s adaptation is cannily put together, carefully combining the personal and literary aspects of the correspondence. The latter includes frequent name-dropping of both places (the writer’s retreat Yaddo, the authors’ respective homes in Key West, New York City and other locales) and celebrated authors.
“I received a very obscene letter in verse from Dylan Thomas,” Bishop writes, while Lowell describes attending a reading by Anais Nin.
“Pretty thin stuff though not unattractive personally,” he coolly notes.
Biographical details are only alluded to, with confusion sometimes resulting. Those unfamiliar with Bishop’s alcoholism, for instance, will be hard-pressed to understand why at one point she’s seen chugging a bottle of rubbing alcohol.
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Not surprisingly, considering its provenance, the language in the piece often soars, with the writing of even routine missives achieving a, yes, poetic quality. Director Kate Whoriskey occasionally adds bits of theatrical business, dubbed “Interludes” and aided by the black-clad Stage Manager (Polly Noonan) seated at the rear of the stage. These range from the charming, if predictable (Bishop and Lowell holding hands, slow dancing, etc.) to the overly cutesy (rice is thrown at Lowell as he announces his wedding).
Only occasionally glancing at the scripts in front of them, Chalfant and Yulin deliver superb performances, with the actors’ natural gravitas well-suited to their esteemed literary characters. Their advanced age throws us off early on when Bishop and Lowell are only in their thirties, a problem that could have been solved by simply providing projected images of the real-life figures.
Yulin is deeply touching in conveying Lowell’s courtliness and resolve in the face of emotional problems, while Chalfant is radiant, whether beaming with pride as Lowell praises Bishop’s poetry or uttering a loud groan when he announces that he’s married a woman many years his junior. And she’s heartbreaking when delivering such lines as Bishop telling Lowell, “When you write my epitaph, you must say that I was the loneliest person who ever lived.” She may well have been, but thanks to Dear Elizabeth, she and Robert Lowell have come back to affecting life.
Cast: Kathleen Chalfant, Harris Yulin, Polly Noonan
Director: Kate Whoriskey
Playwright: Sarah Ruhl
Set designer: Antje Ellermann
Costume designer: Anita Yavich
Lighting designer: Mary Louise Geiger
Sound designers: Jill BC Du Boff, Emily Auciello
Presented by the Woman’s Project Theater
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