‘Dear Elizabeth’

Intermission at the Dorset Theatre Festival — I’m standing on marble under the porch rafters and hanging plants, candles lit on the wooden tables, and outside the eaves it’s pouring, a solid fall of water. It feels like an Elizabeth Bishopian time, tropical July in a Vermont quarry town with handwritten fire lane signs.

“Hidden, oh hidden
in the high fog
the house we live in,
beneath the magnetic rock,
rain-, rainbow-ridden,
where blood-black
bromelias, lichens,
owls, and the lint
of the waterfalls cling,
familiar, unbidden.”

She wrote that recalling the rainy season in Brazil in the 14 years she lived there with Lota de Macedo Soares, and it will not come up tonight. I’ve come to see “Dear Elizabeth,” Sarah Ruhl’s new play in tribute to Bishop’s 30-year friendship with Robert Lowell.

As the lights go up, we see them come in at opposite sides of stage. She is in muck boots from tending to a cow in labor, and he sits formally dressed in a book-lined study — a contrast that seems partly characteristic. Bishop was an orphan from Nova Scotia, and Lowell was a Boston Brahmin.

Between them they rocked and fueled the poetry world 50 years ago — they each served as National Poet Laureate and won the Pulitzer; Bishop won the National Book Award and Lowell the National Book Critics Circle Award.

She wrote in carefully chosen images and adjectives, sometimes raw and always unexpected, like a shock of static — toucans and taxi meters, an owl’s nest on fire, ships “signaling with a multitude of flags” and the Hudson full of clear moon jellyfish. And the poem would live with light, with longing.

While she could take years over a poem, he wrote more than 25 books. He wrote stark, rhythmic, often autobiographical forays on the New England coast, where Protestant wealth jarred against granite and lobster boats.

“… nobody’s here —

only skunks that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fir
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.”

A few lines from Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” make it into Ruhl’s play. He dedicated this poem to Bishop. They read and influenced each other’s work, and they wrote poems for each other. They reached out to each other in times of collapse. They seem to have stayed close to each other longer than to anyone else.

And they wrote to each other for decades while they were often living a continent apart. Ruhl has drawn the play from their letters, editing their own words.

This structure creates some challenges on a living stage. Taken literally, the it means the actors are almost never in the same place. The staging here kept them physically apart much of the time, so that we had to choose one to focus on, and the actors could not readily play off one another.

The action deepened for me when they were allowed to interpret distance more fluidly and interact with each other, to hand over a book, to re-enact a scene — or to show us how one would have felt to write those words and the other would have felt to get them. Writing or reading a letter can feel intensely intimate. Those words hold the one you love, and you feel them and their absence. When the actors came close for a moment, they could invoke that intensity and distance at the same time.

This is a play of short scenes and monologs, crossing many places and years, and it asks the actors carry the growing weight and complexity of this long friendship and the dramatic arc of it. Some of the letters are blunt and deep. Some are oblique. Bishop and Lowell knew each other through physical and mental illness, love, death, the hardest life could throw at them.

In places in this show, the actors held that depth and me with it. In others a shift in scene or tone could wake me out of the story, like a clunky sentence in a novel. It came especially clear when, in what should have been two of the barest moments of the night, a stage direction flashed across in the foreground, asking me to look away from the action altogether. I didn’t want to read that aching time. I wanted to see and feel it. Slow down. Stand in clear salt water so cold you can’t feel your feet, while the wind catches your bare shoulders and your hair drips down your back. Feel the hand you’re holding. This moment will only come once.

But the language here — oh, the language. The blunt, mad, comic, anguished words, the wry comments on the Key West heat, the allusions to arguments and spearing among family — the words are alive. Saying come home. I need you.

I will keep in touch.


Photo at the top: Andrea Syglowski as Elizabeth Bishop and Chris Henry Coffey as Robert Lowell. Photo by Taylor Crichton, Courtesy of Dorset Theatre Festival

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