Dear Elizabeth by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Kate Whoriskey
Women’s Project Theater, 55 West End Ave., New York, NY
Off-Broadway, rotating cast, October 26—December 5
Reviewed by Scott Klavan on November 12, 2015
Dear Elizabeth, a theatrical presentation of letters between the acclaimed poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, is a thoughtful play, a play about thinking. The letters were collected and edited by Sarah Ruhl, one of America’s most popular playwrights, and the production directed by Kate Whoriskey. It is receiving its New York premiere Off-Broadway at the Women’s Project Theater. The piece is acted simply and sparely, staged with suggestion and implication rather than revelation; it is modest, soft, deeply intelligent, and, in its own way, bold and moving.
The Women’s Project was begun in 1978, under the leadership of Julia Miles, and describes itself on its website as “the nation’s oldest and largest theater company dedicated to developing, producing and promoting the work of female theater artists at every stage in their careers.” It has produced over 600 mainstage productions and now, under a new Managing Artistic Director, Lisa McNulty, has moved into a new home on the Upper West Side, in an area of Manhattan more known these days for banks, upscale supermarkets, and fancy apartment houses than for theater. The space is attractively designed and serviceable, a welcome addition to the dwindling number of true Off-Broadway houses in the city.
Dear Elizabeth presents Bishop and Lowell as they maintain a loyal correspondence between 1947 and the late ‘70s. Lowell, bipolar, whose mental problems sometimes land him in a sanatorium, and Bishop, a solitary, secret heavy drinker, find a kinship through their discussion of work and their sharp-witted, mischievous and mordant observations about people and life. On occasion, they meet at Yaddo writers retreat in upstate New York, or in New England. Once, Lowell, reserved, awkward, struck by Bishop’s burning loneliness, takes her hand and asks her to marry him. But the attempt drifts off and the two never achieve full connection. They return to their more realized relationship, through words and letters. Lowell, endlessly rewriting, gets constructive criticism from Bishop and in turn, he lauds her poems. Both rise to the height of their field: he is on the cover of New York Review of Books; she wins the Pulitzer.
Eventually, Lowell marries fellow poet Elizabeth Hardwick; Bishop buys a pet Toucan; then, travelling through Brazil, she finds love with Lota, and the two women live together there. Lowell has three children with Hardwick, but the marriage finally ends. He wonders about the “other life that might have been had” with Bishop. Later, Bishop travels back to New York and Lota joins her; Lota then suddenly commits suicide. Lowell marries a younger woman. In the 1970s, his health fails, Lowell dies of a heart attack in a taxi, and Bishop reads a mournful poem at his memorial.
In Dear Elizabeth, the two actors sit side by side, reading their letters out front, and rise sporadically to briefly physically interact. A stage manager reads many directions and events, which are only rarely acted out. Theatergoers will recognize this format from A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters (the Broadway revival of which was reviewed in this space last year) and the plays are similar, not only in structure but content as well. In both pieces, the man is more upright and conservative than the woman, who often behaves erratically. Love Letters is the more direct of the two, spelling things out in a lucidly effective manner; Elizabeth takes more risks, hovering around the edges of knowability.
And this seems to be where Ruhl, the writer of such admired pieces as In the Next Room or the vibrator play, and The Clean House, wants the piece to live, as it were. She avoids or even rejects displaying the excrescence, the mud, the crap, of the experiences of these poets, of all of us. Lowell’s stays in mental hospitals, Bishop’s alcoholism, Lota’s suicide, were all presumably wrenching, ugly incidents, but they are not made evident here, never enacted. We hear about them in allusion, the letter-description only, after the fact. The impression of life is what we hear, the assessment, the intimation of the messy physical state. The letters are edited so that they come out fractured, notional, and it is up to the audience to imagine the rest.
In this way, in Ruhl’s choice of words, and in the setting and direction, the play replicates the mind-state of the writing and reading of a poem, which is in itself an attempt to bend and peel back language and literalness, to go under the appearance, to feel and grasp the heart of shifting, disorienting reality. The play smartly dramatizes how these poets search for something whole and conclusive, seek the clouds and beyond, crash down to earth, always sifting and sifting, building a castle, ending with empty hands. Lowell’s almost ceaseless rewriting and Bishop’s determined creativity confront the agonizing concept of Change. They fear it, resent it, but are helpless to elude it (several times, the stage manager reads the stage direction “they age somehow”) and in self-defense, use change as a tool, a weapon, a shield. Writing and rewriting for them is a change they can manipulate and master. Until Lowell’s death, the period and conclusion. Bishop’s reading of the final poem announces: Death is the end of change.
All of this may sound like an intellectual exercise, sedentary and pretentious, and in a way it is. Although Ruhl writes in her program notes that people are “starved for the sound of poetry,” it doesn’t seem likely, or it certainly seems that fewer and fewer contemporary young people feel that hunger, though it would certainly be a better world if they did. But theater has always been cousin to poetry. The greatest classical playwrights, from the Greeks, Shakespeare to Marlowe, Ben Jonson, on down, were poets, and often wrote in meter. Theater was poetry in the flesh. The life of the mind has been a facet of plays from the beginning. After all, sets are only flats and slabs of wood and metal, actors only people. Audiences watching the highest-tech, sound-pumping, laser-beamed musicals of today still live in their heads, imagining. “To Be Or Not To Be” is the ultimate mind-monologue. But Dear Elizabeth does take this model to the extreme. After Hamlet’s speech, at least there were swordfights.
The cleverness of Ruhl’s distillation and Kate Whoriskey’s direction, however, save the play from preciousness. Whoriskey, known for her work with, among others, playwright Lynn Nottage on pieces such as Ruined, does exceptional, subtle work here, infusing the production with a sense of reflection, reverberation, and mystery; she provides a play that might have been dry and uninvolving without the engagement and magic of theater. Lota’s suicide is never explained, simply read in a short stage direction, and, in the one jarring movement by Bishop, we feel her confusion and surprise. The production is also helped by the evocative scenic design by Antje Ellermann, a patchwork of Bishop and Lowell’s period suitcases, personal belongings and clippings, offering physical images to illustrate the poets’ hazily remembered, partially understood pasts and sensations, the effects and affects of their lives.
Dear Elizabeth, like the recent Broadway Love Letters, is being performed with rotating casts. Here, duos perform weekly; the role of the stage manager is played by Ruhl veteran Polly Noonan throughout the run. This reviewer saw Peter Scolari as Lowell and Becky Ann Baker as Bishop, the pair who currently play the parents on HBO’s Girls. (Other duos include the actors Cherry Jones, David Aaron Baker, John Douglas Thompson, Harris Yulin, and Kathleen Chalfant.) With his halting up-class delivery, his mix of suppressed terror and romantic need, Scolari embodies the play’s suggestive style. We don’t need the heartbreak of Lowell’s life to be put before us; we see it in his eyes. Baker is less certain of her characterization and the result is that we start asking questions. We don’t get enough specificity from the actress, and so, become curious to hear more about Bishop’s tragic relationship with Lota, her drinking, etc. The hinting style of the piece, rather than being buried within the production itself, shows its seams. (It is also on Bishop’s side of the stage that there are a few directorial missteps, such as the poet drinking rubbing alcohol and vomiting into a basket, the physical manifestation of which is somewhat rushed and tossed-off, and likely less alarming than just hearing the stage manager’s description.)
Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell were great minds and fine artists. In its unwavering portrayal of the lives and thoughts of these two poets, Dear Elizabeth defiantly refuses to placate the audience with easy escape and superficiality, the slick surface where we can skate. Instead, it challenges us to look to the inside, to the vast hidden tunnel, dangerous, secret, and sage. It’s a small play, and large.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including The Joy Luck Club. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published inBest American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In 2014, he starred in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the new Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, earning him a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival 2015. He recently directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, at the United Solo Festival in New York, and a series of staged readings of a new comedy, Sheila & Angelo, at the Dramatist Guild. In the summer of 2015, he appeared in the Off-Broadway production of the musical Sayonara, for Pan Asian Rep.