DEAR ELIZABETH (People’s Light & Theatre Company): Kindred Spirits in Poetry and Depression

Photo by Mark Garvin

Ellen McLaughlin as Elizabeth Bishop in DEAR ELIZABETH at People’s Light and Theatre Company (Photo credit: Mark Garvin)

Is a play told solely through the extant letters of its real-life characters really a play? Sarah Ruhl’s DEAR ELIZABETH, which traces the friendship between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell through their thirty years of correspondence (1947-77), seems more of a pedantic academic exercise in hero worship by a playwright who began her writing career as a poet and an admirer of Bishop’s oeuvre. Here Ruhl is, in fact, less of a writer than an editor, or more accurately a re-editor, having culled through hundreds of epistles that the prize-winning American poets wrote to one another, which were already edited by Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton and published in 2008 under the title Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Along with the verbatim letters, Ruhl inserts a few of Bishop’s and Lowell’s poems and a few projected supertitles into her script, and, voilà!—a play that would have been better suited to the format of a reading, now in its full-stage regional premiere at People’s Light & Theatre Company.

While DEAR ELIZABETH traces the famed poets’ growing friendship and reciprocal support through the increasingly familiar greetings and closings of their letters, and the sharing of the most personal events of their troubled lives and minds via frequent posts and infrequent visits, the slow pace and minimal animation in the recital of their correspondences become tedious for the show’s hour-and-forty-five-minute running time; the three decades of communications quickly begin to feel like they’re being told in real time. The height of the action in Ruhl’s “play in letters” comes with the repeated opening and closing of the layered back walls of the set, designed (by Jason Simms) to suggest the different locales from which Bishop and Lowell wrote.

All-too-obvious props—candle-lit globes, a ladder, and a clothesline—are employed with excruciatingly slow and deliberate movements, as visualizations of the symbols and metaphors extracted from the poets’ writings (e.g., “We seem attached to each other by some stiff piece of wire, so that each time one moves, the other moves in another direction”—hence the clothesline). The sheer verbosity of the two-hander resulted, in the performance I attended, in a less than fluid delivery, with several false starts and blown lines by the actors (Ellen McLaughlin and Rinde Eckert), who never fully captured the rhythm of their characters’ poetry or the depth of their emotions and psychopathy.

For fans of Bishop and Lowell, DEAR ELIZABETH offers an intimate look into their private lives, mutual respect, and shared demons. For aficionados of great theater, their story offers little more than a cliché of the tormented artist—undeniably talented, but plagued by mental illness (her depression and his bipolar disorder), regrets (the married Lowell laments never having asked the lesbian Bishop to wed him, as “the other life that might have been had”), self-pity (Bishop’s character recites her poem “One Art”—a paean to “the art of losing”), and self-medication with alcohol, nicotine, and pills (rendering the pair largely unsympathetic). As Elizabeth herself wrote in a letter to Lowell, “In general, I deplore the confessional.” [Steinbright Stage, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, PA] April 2-27, 2014; www.peopleslight.org.

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About the author

Debra Miller

Debra holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Delaware and teaches at Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ. She is a judge for the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, Philadelphia Arts and Culture Correspondent for Central Voice, and has served as a Commonwealth Speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and President of the Board of Directors of Da Vinci Art Alliance. Her publications include articles, books, and catalogues on Renaissance, Baroque, American, Pre-Columbian, and Contemporary Art, and feature articles on the Philadelphia theater scene.