Lyric Stage's "Dear Elizabeth": Poetry in Emotion

Ed Hoopman & Laura Latreille in "Dear Elizabeth"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

The choice by Lyric Stage Company to mount “Dear Elizabeth”, a 2012 play by Sarah Ruhl (unaccountably missing a bio in the program, but renowned for “The Clean House”, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone”, and “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play”) was a daring one. Adapted from the book “Words in Air”, a collection of some 300 letters, edited by Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton, it concerns the three decades long epistolary relationship between two of the most celebrated American poets of the twentieth century, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Artists and friends, both were Pulitzer Prize winners (Lowell twice). Having met at a party in 1947 thrown by a mutual poet friend, Randall Jarrell, they corresponded until Lowell’s death in 1977. The bipolar Lowell (with two tumultuous marriages) and depressive alcoholic Bishop (having lost her lover of sixteen years, Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares, to suicide), though often a continent apart, had a sort of marriage of their minds, though disparate ones. Where Lowell’s poetry could be fervent and personal, Bishop’s by and large was not. Does this make for great theater, or is it as deadly as it sounds? Deadly, thanks to the acting and technical elements, by no means. But neither is it especially lively.

The byplay between them on the page succeeds less as a theatrical performance, despite the skill of the two actors portraying them and the fluidity of the direction. Both are familiar Lyric Stage alumni, Ed Hoopman (“Animal Crackers”, “The Importance of Being Earnest”) and Laura Latreille (“Time Stands Still”, “The Understudy”). As directed by A. Nora Long, the company’s Associate Artistic Director, theirs is a surprisingly involving friendship. Ruhl has given them a lot to share with an audience, while leaving out some of their more mundane letters (such as those about dental appointments). Many of their exchanges are amusing, but don‘t add up to much dramatic tension. In fact, a needless intermission breaks whatever arc there might have been. The technical credits are all superb, from the clever Scenic Design by Shelley Barish, to the Costume Design by Emily Woods Hogue, Lighting Design by Karen Perlow, Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will, and Projection Design by Garrett Herzog (sometimes downstage on the floor and thus difficult to read).

Chalk it up to a very noble and literate effort. The wit is usually dry and laconic, often stinging, yet thanks to these two capable actors, avoids the threat of theatrical ham on wry. Interestingly, toward the end of the play Bishop accuses Lowell of the poetic license of altering facts. Ruhl herself is guilty of the same, for theatrical effect, when she leaves unmentioned the fact that, a few years before Lowell’s death, Bishop had already found another love in Alice Methfessel (at Harvard) who remained with her until her death, with Bishop leaving her Lewis Wharf apartment to her. As Bishop expressed it: “If only one could see everything that way all the time, that rare feeling of control, illumination…life is all right, for the time being”. And beautiful prose and poetry are, too.

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