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A CurtainUp Review
Dear Elizabeth — A Play in Letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again
By Charles Wright

Writing poetry is an unnatural act. It takes great skill to make it seem natural. Most of the poet's energies are really directed towards this goal: to convince himself (perhaps, with luck, eventually some readers) that what he's up to and what he's saying is really an inevitable, only natural way of behaving under the circumstances.— Elizabeth Bishop in notes from the late 1950s or early 1960s. [Elizabeth Bishop, Prose, ed. Lloyd Schwartz (2011)

Can poetry get away with murder, / its terror a seizure of the imagination / foreign to our stubborn common health?— Robert Lowell, "Louisiana State University in 1940" [in Day by Day (1977)]
dear elizabeth
Kathleenn Chalfant and Harris Yulin (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell were acquainted for 30 years, from 1947 until Lowell's death. Their fellow poet Thom Gunn reported that each, separately, confided to him that the other was his or her best friend.

During those decades, Bishop (1911-1979) and Lowell (1917-1977) were seldom in the same location. Instantaneous electronic communication was not yet imaginable; long-distance telephoning was expensive; so these poets (who were also masters of prose) wrote letters to each other and wrote them incessantly.

Dear Elizabeth, adapted by Sarah Ruhl from Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, follows the two as they travel, relocate residences, find and relinquish lovers, contend with demons (alcoholism for Bishop, bipolar disorder for Lowell), publish verse in periodicals and books, win prizes and fellowships, and suffer varied critical responses to their work. Previously produced by Yale Repertory Theater, Dear Elizabeth is currently having its New York premiere at Women's Project Theater.

In structure and style, Ruhl's play resembles Love Letters, the charming A.R. Gurney perennial, which had a brief Broadway run last season. Like Love Letters, Dear Elizabeth features two stars (changing weekly), seated at tables, reading exquisite prose.

Ruhl, working under commission from Yale Repertory Theatre, faced a gargantuan challenge in condensing the poets' own epistolary account of their long, platonic love story to accommodate the economic realities of theatrical production and the limited stamina of audiences.Words in Air, edited by Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton, contains more than 450 letters, filling 800 pages without counting appendices, glossary, acknowledgements, and index. The playwright has made defensible selections, but the script covers 30 years in such lickety-split fashion that individual scenes feel fragmentary; and the play, as a whole, is elliptical.

Anyone unfamiliar with the lives of these poets and the larger thrust of their correspondence is bound to be somewhat at sea. References to even the most important off-stage characters — Bishop's romantic partner Lota de Macedo Soares . . .Lowell's wives, Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Lady Caroline Blackwood, as well as his daughter and son — are so fleeting that the casual theater-goer may not grasp their significance or how they fit into the overall drama.

The production includes several "interludes" in which director Kate Whoriskey gets the principals away from their tables and moves them around the stage under "voice of God" narration by a character called the Stage Manager (Polly Noonan throughout the run). The interludes don't prevent Dear Elizabeth being dramatically inert. What saves the day, despite the inertia, is the majesty of the poets' language as intoned by first rate actors.

Yet there's one scene that stands out. Near the end of the play, the friends clash over Lowell's determination to publish confessional poems about his divorce from Hardwick and his precipitate new relationship with Blackwood. Those poems are contained in a book called The Dolphin (1973) which reviewer Stephen Yenser has characterized as "more gossip . . . than gospel." Several of the poems incorporate substantial quotations (verbatim, not even paraphrased) from letters Lowell received from his ex-wife during the break-up.

Lowell considered the verses in The Dolphin the best of his career and viewed that book, along with two other volumes published the same year, as his "magnum opus." Bishop acknowledges the high quality of the poems but takes her friend to task for subjecting Hardwick's private correspondence to public scrutiny. She condemns as immoral his embedding the selections from Hardwick's letters in his own verses — blending fact with fiction — in a manner that's inevitably tendentious.

In this brief, electrifying section, Ruhl has her actors challenge each other in a rapid-fire exchange assembled from individual sentences and relatively brief passages from the poets' letters. For a few minutes, the proceedings are transformed from a platform reading to a fully realized, on-stage altercation. Ruhl punctuates the scene by giving Bishop an asthmatic attack, and closes the section with an awkward phone call during which Lowell is at a loss for words and Bishop can't speak due to shortness of breath.

In re-arranging her source material this way, Ruhl takes an audacious liberty that gives the scene a degree of conflict absent elsewhere in the script. The playwright's snipping and splicing yield a fine dramatic moment but leave her vulnerable to the very charge Bishop levels against Lowell: the uncertain balance of fiction and fact loads the dice. What's problematic in the construction of this scene (as opposed to cases of out-and-out fictionalizing such as Mike Barlett's current King Charles III and Peter Morgan's recent The Audience) is that Ruhl's vision (conveyed through sundry bits of correspondence arranged according to the playwright's pleasure) appears to be posthumously certified by the voices of the subjects themselves.

Between October 26 and October 31, Kathleen Chalfant played Bishop and Harris Yulin was Lowell. That's a dream team but somewhat miscast. Both Bishop and Lowell were subject to depression and other psychic pain. Devoid of the kind of tough emotional carapace that protected the intellectual warriors among their friends (Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman, for instance), each was, in his or her way, radically thin-skinned. Neither Ruhl's script nor the initial principals of the Women's Project production have captured those characteristics.

The incandescent Chalfant handles Bishop's language with aplomb but doesn't convey her fragility and inwardness. Yulin gives Lowell the virility that's evident in all the photos and archival recordings, but not the patrician charm or manic-to-depressive swings that made the man at once irresistible and impossible.

Next up, November 2 through November 7, are J. Smith-Cameron as Bishop and John Douglas Thompson as Lowell, with more interesting casting choices (as well as actors not yet announced) to follow.

Dear Elizabeth – A Play in Letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again by Sarah Ruhl
Director: Kate Whoriskey
Cast: Rotating, beginning with Kathleen Chalfant (Elizabeth Bishop), Harris Yulin (Robert Lowell), and Polly Noonan (Stage Manager); in weeks ahead: Becky Ann Baker, David Aaron Baker, Rinde Eckert, Cherry Jones, Mia Katigbak, Ellen McLaughlin, Peter Scolari, J. Smith-Cameron, John Douglas Thompson, with Polly Noonan appearing as the Stage Manager in all casts.
Scenic Design: Antje Ellerman
Lighting Design: Mary Louise Geiger
Sound Design: Jill B.C. DuBoff and Emily Auciello
Production Manager: Steve Rosenberg
Production Stage Managers: C. Renee Alexander and Bernita Robinson
Running Time: One hour 45 minutes, with one intermission
Presented by Women's Project Theater (Lisa McNulty, Producing Artistic Director; Maureen Moynihan, Managing Director)
Women's Project Theater, Broadway & 76th Street
From 10/26/15; opened 10/29/15; closes 12/05/15/
Reviewed by Charles Wright at an October 30th performance
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