One line stands out above the rest for me in Sarah Ruhl’s DEAR ELIZABETH, her play in letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and back again. It will not leave my head. It’s an earthshaking understatement in the script but it resonates even more today: “There are so few [poems] in the world now.” I firmly believe that if the world had more art in it, wars would cease.
I’m intrigued that this play (and this format) has left me so moved, even a day later. Director A. Nora Long’s lovely, surprisingly clever production for Lyric Stage (through Nov. 9th) is a slow starter. Once you get accustomed to both characters using the same playing space, although they may be a continent apart, you get into the rhythm of the piece. Like A.R. Gurney’s wildly successful LOVE LETTERS, the form presupposes that the truth is fully revealed in correspondence. And like LOVE LETTERS, the relationship flowers on paper, not so much in person.
The beauty of DEAR ELIZABETH lies in the raw revelations of true friendship. We’re privy to information which the writers didn’t share with anyone but each other. (However, the two celebrated poets did save their letters, after all, knowing scholars would be researching their work.) Sometimes you feel like a voyeur, learning about Lowell’s breakdowns. You’re embarrassed and at the same time you feel very close to the character(s) to know what anguish lies behind the verse…and saddened that the medical establishment couldn’t properly treat depression back then.
For me, though, there just isn’t enough poetry in the play, especially in Act I. The stakes are higher in Act II, as the two grow older…and Act II contains my favorite poem, Bishop’s “The Art of Losing.” Mind you, it’s not for the faint of heart. (I cry just thinking about it but I must say that Laura Latrielle as Bishop sticks it like a champion gymnast.)
One might even make the case that the letters are poetry of sorts: witty, humorous musings on their contemporaries, on their difficult romantic relationships and on their own rivalry as esteemed literary figures. She will suggest a better descriptive for a poem he’s sent. He urges her to write her way out of a funk. Latrielle manages to convey a no-nonsense, proto feminist confidence while at the same time, a deep fragility. Ed Hoopman makes Lowell an elegant, gentleman poet, a man who never sacrifices charm even at the depths of despair.
One of the definite pluses of the production is Shelley Barish’s rustic Maine/Yaddo/ and everywhere in between set with hidden delights to illustrate a scene or accentuate a metaphor (It may be a simile, I can’t remember). And Karen Perlow’s ending for the play is simply perfection.