note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth
Throughout the years, the art of letter writing was a cherished method of communication and self-expression. However, e-mail and other forms of social media are rapidly eroding it.
For Pulitzer Prize-winning, Massachusetts-bred, 20th century poets, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, their letters were their lifeline - their ties that bound their love and friendship to each other for 30 years. Playwright Sarah Ruhl’s celebrates their friendship and support by highlighting the poets’ letters and works in her two-person, two-act play, “Dear Elizabeth,” (a play in letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and back again), starring Laura Latreille and Ed Hoopman, at the Lyric Stage Company of Greater Boston. The play celebrated its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre in November-December 2012. Lyric Director A. Nora Long maintains a balletic exchange between the two poetry icons, as they speak long distance to each other via their letters and their occasional meetings, embracing and cherishing each other. Karen Perlow’s subtle lighting directs theatergoers’ attention as the pair frequently shifts around the multi-level stage and nearby.
During a 30-year span, Lowell and Bishop penned more than 800 letters to each other. Besides their enduring, loving friendship, Lowell was in love with Bishop, and confessed he wanted to marry her in one of his letters.
The two also shared sad lives. Bishop, who was born in Worcester in 1911, considered herself an orphan and “the loneliest person who has ever lived,” because her affluent father died when she was very young, and her mother was committed to a mental institution most of her life. Bishop lived with maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia, and paternal relatives in Worcester and South Boston. She graduated from Vassar, globe-trotted, and spent time in Key West, Fla., her New England haven at North Haven, Maine, Yaddo Writers Retreat in Saratoga Springs, NY, and the city, and a long stretch in Brazil. She was America’s poet laureate in 1949-50, and won the Pulitzer Prize, among others.
Robert Traill Spence Lowell, affectionately known as “Cal,” was born to a prestigious Boston Brahmin family in 1917, attended Harvard University, Kenyon College, and graduate school at Louisiana State University. He also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1947, at age 30. Married three times, Lowell suffered from manic depression and was hospitalized at McLean, Baldpate, and other institutions. He loved and was very proud of his daughter with his second wife and son with his third wife.
Their friendship spanned from World War II to post-Vietnam War. The two primarily communicated through letters, but met at times, buoying both.
Although Lowell wrote in his self-created, “confessional” style, revealing personal information, Bishop avoided such topics, writing about her love of nature. She also endured bouts with asthma, depression and alcoholism, so together, they formed a supportive bond.
Although their writing style differed greatly, they admired and respected each other’s works. Bishop dedicated her poem, “Armadillo,” to him, and in her honor, he wrote “Skunk Hour” in return, along with other poems. In Water,” which the couple poignantly enact here, they relive one of their most precious weekends together in Maine.
Lowell died of a heart attack in a New York taxicab, Sept. 12, 1977; she suffered a cerebral aneurysm and died in Boston, Oct. 6, 1979.
Ruhl’s fascination with the poets’ letters, their unconventional friendship, and their unsaid words are all in “Dear Elizabeth,” eloquently and sensitively portrayed by two of Boston’s finest actors, Laura Latreille and Ed Hoopman. Large typewritten words appear on the stage floor and above, heralding the date and site of the next scene and letter exchange.
In fact, Ruhl’s script meticulously sets up each scene. Actors mustn’t read the poets’ words and letters. They must speak them as dialogue.
Costume designer Emily Woods Hogue’s simplistic changes shift us through time and space, from New York City, their Yaddo artists’ retreat in Saratoga Springs, Maine, Brazil, Italy, Bard College, etc.
Latreille and Hoopman magnificently handle every innuendo, every hint, every emotion, every outrage, every burst of madness and alcoholism, every joy, and every descent into despair. Simple facts like the 1967 suicide of Bishop’s longtime lesbian lover, Brazilian architect Lota Macedo Soares, are cloaked in inference. Their references to hobnobbing with political and fellow literary greats throughout their 30-year friendship are an American lexicon of Who’s-Who.
Shelley Barish’s tri-level set, resembles a dusty, shuttered space, using stage props like a microphone; old record player; desk and chair; a suitcase and trap door to symbolize water and sea. The couple dry themselves off with large beach towels, his bearing the words, “Will you marry me?,” and her unsaid response, “What Did You Say?”
Before seeing “Dear Elizabeth,” do yourself a favor. Research the poets’ biographies. Although Hoopman and Latreille deliver stirring performances, some theatergoers complained, wanting blanks filled in and everything spelled out.
BOX INFO: Two-act, two-hour, two-person play, written by Sarah Ruhl, appearing through Nov. 9, at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon St., Boston. Performances: Wednesdays, Thursdays, at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3,8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.; Wednesday matinees,, Oct. 22 and Nov. 5, at 2 p.m. Post-show Q&A with the artists, Nov. 2,after the 3 p.m. show. Check for senior, student, group, student rush discount rates. Tickets start at $25. Call the Box Office at 617-585-5678, or visit lyricstage.com.