All Things Entertaining and Cultural
The brilliance of Sarah Ruhl’s play, “Dear Elizabeth,” is it is written so engrossingly and beautifully, it involves you undividedly in the relationship, creativity, affections, talents, upheavals, and health, mental and physical, of two people who would be fascinating and engaging if they were fictional or unknown, let alone the Pantheon poets of the mid-20th century, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, whose celebrity is a bonus.
With “Dear Elizabeth,” Ruhl proves to be as astute and affectionate an editor as she is observant and original as a playwright.
On enforced bed rest during a pregnancy that would yield twins in 2008, Ruhl was given a copy of the just-published “Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.” As a reader, Ruhl digested the volley of letters between the literary greats in one page-turning gulp. As a writer, she saw the theatrical potential in Bishop’s and Lowell’s exchanges and made a digest of the poets’ missives which became the lovely and loving play, “Dear Elizabeth,” currently receiving an exceptionally penetrating production at People’s Light & Theatre Company with meticulous direction by Lisa Rothe and riveting star performances from Ellen McLaughlin and Rinde Eckert, both accomplished writers and creators for the theater in addition to being moving, inventive actors.
Bishop and Lowell do not share a poetic style. Bishop is spare, terse, and unyielding. She is a searcher and recorder of truths and essences she denotes in key images she can express completely in one or a pair of words. The depth she finds in economy is her art. Lowell is more free-wheeling and given to expansiveness. He can be as explicit and perceptive as Bishop, but he likes telling a story and arriving at the core of a matter rather than presenting a view in one quick stroke. One can be as trenchant and piercing as the other in spite of their diametrically different discipline, but each was a writer who mastered diction, communication, and mechanics and who took pride in the craft of their artistic form — meter, scansion, precise language — as they produced their poetry.
“Dear Elizabeth” reveals the simpatico Bishop and Lowell established almost immediately and continued over decades, more through correspondence than by seeing each other in person. Ruhl captures the friendship, trust, and temperamental attraction that led the poets to share intimacies and admit fears or facts they did not tell others. She lets her audience see Bishop and Lowell as individuals with divergent sensibilities while illuminating their kinship as writers. When the poets take turns excoriating themselves for their laziness, their avoidance of work, their finding any excuse including drink and bi-polarism to escape facing a typewriter and a blank page, or worse a typewriter containing a manuscript that must be reread and continued, you see the angst of all writers, even the ones who stay at their desks and force themselves to get to “The End.” When Bishop in particular writes of the loneliness and isolation she feels when she is working, especially if she is composing at her peak, the sentiment rings as true and universal. As played by Ellen McLaughlin, you feel how solitary a task literary creation is for Bishop. And how daunting it is to be working on something no one necessarily needs or wants but has the chance to be appreciated and even life-sustaining once it is complete and sent out to the world for editors’ perusal and, if you’re Bishop and Lowell, likely publication.
Ruhl, of course, understands this process, as do McLaughlin and Eckert. They live the writer’s life. Ruhl’s genius has been to take the mass of random unorganized letters that passed between Bishop and Lowell and distill that mass into a play that flows and entertains neatly while touching on the various themes the writers broach and making their epistolary relationship vibrant, logical, and conversational in presentation. Ruhl, who maintains the chronological regimen of “Words in Air,” proves as careful as Bishop and as generous as Lowell in crafting a sterling script that makes both poets palpably interesting as individual characters who have full, varied lives to lead, the writing being one aspect of their being, however quintessential. Although McLaughlin and Eckert are quoting from memorized letters that can be presented thematically and out of sequence, they seem to be having a smooth running dialogue, an ongoing chat, veering from gossipy shop talk to intense personal or artistic revelation, that comes across as naturally in speech as it does in the words Bishop and Lowell scribbled or typed to each other in the 30 years between their meeting at a 1947 party thrown by fellow poet Randall Jarrell and Lowell’s sudden death by heart attack in a New York taxi in 1977. Ruhl has been deft enough to give you the illusion Bishop and Lowell are with each other and talking to each while Rothe’s equally intelligent direction shows clearly they are in separate places and leading decidedly different lives. McLaughlin and Eckert contribute expert timing; perfect physicalization and expression of their characters’ moods, points of view, or states of health; and fluid witty line readings that make “Dear Elizabeth” at People’s Light a special occasion of theater.
Bishop’s and Lowell’s letters are so rich in content, Ruhl has a lot of material with which to work, a lot of fodder to hone a play that paints a clear portrait of her famous subjects but transcends their fame, celebrity, and influence on the literary world to make them fragilely and ineluctably human. Like most people who perform, even at a superior level, neither Bishop nor Lowell view her- or himself as being extraordinary or special. They are aware of their talent and status, but when it comes to creating a new piece, they regard themselves as workers fulfilling their assignments, obligations, and obsessions. To them, writing, attending conferences, teaching, reviewing other people’s verse, and finding ideas for new poems are part of a routine. Ruhl, McLaughlin, and Eckert show you the totality of their lives.
By now you can see why I am so taken with this play and production. Ruhl’s work is as literate and literary as Bishop’s and Lowell’s. She respects both their intellectual bent and appreciates their humanity. She is also a talented enough playwright to structure the letters with emotional high and lows, with a mind towards humor, and in a manner that captures the essence of Bishop and Lowell as artists, friends, and individuals. Rothe has staged “Dear Elizabeth” with a tone that allows Bishop and Lowell to be smart while also being accessible. She doesn’t put the characters on a lofty plane or have them portrayed as snobs or artistes. She shows them at their most varied and real. McLaughlin and Eckert oblige by portraying people who are not impressed by the witty, inquisitive, or provocative things they say. Their intelligence is evident in their conversation because they have it naturally. They don’t strain self-consciously to come up with a droll or withering line or labor to be profound. They endow their characters with honesty and, once again because this trait cannot be emphasized enough, humanity.
“Dear Elizabeth” makes the epic intimate. Bishop and Lowell live and wander all over the world, each of them residing for a period in Europe and Bishop spending much of her creative and personal life in Brazil where she shared a house that suited her with her partner, Lota de Macedo Soares, an architect who ended her life in 1967. They both spend appreciable time in New York, though rarely at the same time. Lowell is drawn to his New England roots and a home he has in Maine. With all of the traveling and constant moving of house, Ruhl and Rothe give a domestic grounding to their characters, to Bishop who enjoys homelife, cooking, and crafts more than to Lowell who seems to welcome most a place to lie down and avoid commitments, the ones that concern writing and otherwise. Both characters drink with fabled writers’ zeal, and Lowell is regularly seen fighting the vestiges of his bi-polar condition while Bishop is seen coping with serious bouts of asthma. Rothe includes some evocative sequences in which Lowell seems literally and symbolically to be reaching for light. Rinde Eckert has a continuing bit in which Lowell, in pain or fatigue, lies down on a table as if it is the greatest refuge for what ails him. Lowell’s relationship and marriage to writer and literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick is also well chronicled, including in a scene when Lowell reports he is going to a party Hardwick will attend, and Bishop warns him to beware of her.
Ruhl’s writing is impeccable. Perhaps the greatest tribute to it is you can enjoy “Dear Elizabeth” even you never heard of Elizabeth Bishop or Robert Lowell and know nothing about their writing or the literary milieu they inhabited. Rothe’s staging is perfect. It is clear and creative simultaneously. But it is the way Ellen McLaughlin and Rinde Eckert embody their characters and the depth and variety they give them that makes the People’s Light production such an absolute gem.
McLaughlin’s Bishop is outwardly and conversationally as neat and well-organized as one of the writer’s poems. She is a woman who seems in command of and at home in most situations, which is why the expression that comes from writing and precision of thought and composition is so important to her.
McLaughlin’s posture and facial expressions tell a story in themselves. You can read Elizabeth’s face, the face McLaughlin gives her, as clearly as you can read her poems.
There’s a consistent thoughtfulness in McLaughlin’s mien as she portrays Bishop. There are also signs of constant worry and concern. As strong and as independent as Elizabeth is, she is vulnerable and responsive to the many vicissitudes of Lowell’s life. Elizabeth can use a letter to whine or to chronicle the ordinary as easily as she can compose a note crammed with questions, observations, and strong opinions. In McLaughlin’s portrayal, you all of these moods and traits. Her Elizabeth earns empathy because she exudes sense and steadiness even when she in a quandary or grieving mightily over the loss of Lota, Lowell, and a toucan that has become a childlike pet of sorts during Bishop’s days in Brazil.
McLaughlin makes Elizabeth so thoroughly authentic, you almost breathe with her and pay great attention to her world and all in it that concerns her. With her manner of tolerant exasperation, McLaughlin makes Elizabeth warm and lovable so that her quirkiness is attractive.
Eckert, though tall and robust, gives Lowell an impish quality, as if the boy in Lowell is entrenched and never intends to mature completely. Lowell is a tease who can be sincere. He is one who likes to hear feedback about his work and is particularly keen to receive Elizabeth’s. Though wary of his precarious health, he is careless about it.
Eckert’s amiability keeps Lowell welcome. He is a worthy friend and correspondent to Bishop, and we enjoy the impression they are often together even though it’s clear from what Lowell and Bishop say that they are often thousands of miles apart.
Eckert, who retains his memorable nimbleness in spite of his middle-age weight, gives a beautifully physical performance. Lowell is always loping about. When he roosts in a chair, he seems restless and seeks activity, e.g. writing to Bishop. His Lowell seems to hover while McLaughlin’s Elizabeth seems to stand firm. Best of all, Eckert physicalizes Lowell’s breakdowns into depression or uncontrollable mania. You can see the first sign of faltering, of conscious faltering, in Eckert’s posture. You read the consciousness of decline by the shocked, disoriented, dismayed, and dismaying look on his face.
As a team, McLaughlin and Eckert provide pitch perfect counterpoint for each other. Their characters are opposites who come together to have a truly engaged and affectionate friendship, one they may not have sustained if they were constantly in each other’s company. You can see the camaraderie in each of the actors when Lowell and Bishop are in league, and the comfort the poets feel on the rare occasions when they are in the same space at the same time. Once again, the give and take endows Rothe’s production for People’s Light with admirable authenticity. McLaughlin and Eckert are so real, they share their veracity and versatility with their characters and make “Dear Elizabeth” into a taut, endearing dance that satisfies intellectually and entertains on all possible levels.
Jason Simms’s set is as functional and versatile as the actors. One table evokes several settings. Corners give reality to the individual surroundings of Lowell, who has a comfortable chair the floor around which is piled with books, and Bishop, whose workplace is compact and orderly although also littered with books. It is remarkable how one unadorned square foot of the stage persuades you Bishop is in Brazil. Simm’s set plays many roles and is always serviceable while never getting in the way. Oh, and I loved the wallpaper Simms selected as a backdrop and decoration.
“Dear Elizabeth” runs through Sunday, April 27 at People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road (just south of Route 30 West on Route 401), in Malvern, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday, and 7 p.m. Sunday. No matinee is scheduled for Wednesday, April 9 or Saturday, April 26. No shows will be played on Easter Sunday, April 20. Tickets range from $46 to $26 and can be obtained by calling 610-644-3500 or going online to www.peopleslight.org.
P.S. I was so impressed with “Dear Elizabeth,” I read various poems by Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell as soon as I returned home. I also immediately sent for “Words in Air.” I was dismayed when browsing in a Barnes & Noble store that no volume of Bishop’s or Lowell’s was for sale although both appeared in various anthologies.