Encore Michigan

“Dear Elizabeth” brings the hearts of two literary giants to life

Review September 03, 2016 David Kiley

ANN ARBOR, Mich.–There is something especially heart rending about a story of two people who love each other, but never “get together.” Life, after all, is far to short to not be with the one you love.

But in Dear Elizabeth, a play by Sara Ruhl about the friendship between the poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, the love shared by these two is complex, lovely, tempestuous and, at all times, literary.

Carrie Jay Sayer (left) and Joel Mitchell (right) in "Dear Elizabeth

Carrie Jay Sayer (left) and Joel Mitchell (right) in “Dear Elizabeth

To call the relationship purely platonic, based on the author’s rendering of the play, based on more than 800 letters exchanged by the two writers, is not entirely true. While Bishop was a lesbian, Lowell, who was married three times, clearly was in love with Elizabeth over the years of their friendship, and barely can contain his feelings at times – fighting them at many turns of the story and staying within his glorious vocabulary of affection.

The play, which was commissioned and produced first in 2012 at Yale Repertory Theatre, is delivered through the reading of letter excerpts back and forth. But unlike a show such as “Love Letters,” the actors are off-book, and do not sit at a table. They do quite a bit of moving and acting–with Lowell writing from various locations including a sanitarium and his office in Boston University – Bishop from her homes in Brazil and Key West.

Carrie Jay Sayer, who plays Bishop, portrays her complex character with great dexterity and heart. Bishop loves and respects Lowell, and fences Lowell’s conflicted amorous feelings for her with great agility – holding her dear friend at just enough length while close enough through their correspondence and occasional meetings to make it the one-in-a-lifetime intimate friendship we all wish we had with someone. They are in love with one another – with one another’s conversation, company, minds and talent. That they are never lovers in the conventional sense makes the friendship all the more irreplaceable.

Joel Mitchell plays Lowell as the erudite alpha male that he was. A brilliant writer who naturally gravitated to the heart of another brilliant writer in Bishop without, it seems, ever feeling rivalry or jealousy. Mitchell dials in just enough bombast into Lowell, while preserving the vulnerability that no doubt attracted Bishop’s heart to his own. His line delivery, frequently lingering on the consonants at the end of sentences, makes his delivery almost as lyrical as Lowell’s writing. His correspondence, which is really brought to life as conversation in the play, is wittier than Bishop’s, more literary. It’s almost as if he never turns off the poet inside. Not having read the letters, I can’t tell if this was done on purpose by Ruhl, or if she merely played down Bishop’s language, or if Bishop was naturally more conversational, and less poetical, in her letter writing. In any case, the contrast works beautifully.

David Wolber, who directed Dear Elizabeth, once again shows he can generate wonderful energy in Theatre Nova’s small space. The character of Lowell writes in one letter that it is as if the two are “connected by a stiff wire.” Wolber orchestrated that dynamic extremely well. Daniel C. Walker designed a set that enables the actors to move through time, and write from various places and truly take patrons on a multi-year journey that spans three continents. Artistic director Carla Milarch served as sound and costume designer, and firmly plants the literary giants in their times, from the late 1950s to the 70s.

The bar was high to deliver on Dear Elizabeth. Having fantastic material to work with is both a blessing and a curse. The play is based on the real-life, heartfelt words of two of the greatest writers of the twentieth century – words that arguably were never meant to be published. This was not their “performance” writing. Assembled by one of the most talented playwrights of the today, and the challenge to do justice to the story is steep.

Lowell utters the line “I’m sure it is the will of the heavens that it is what it is,” in referring to the friendship between the two writers. Like so much of what Lowell says and wrote, that truth works on two levels, and will mean something different for each patron fortunate enough to see this production.

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Week of 7/15/2024

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