Suzanne Bouchard and Stephen Barker Turner portray Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell — two very different American poets who shared a deep bond in “Dear Elizabeth” at Seattle Rep, reviewed by Misha Berson.
Once upon a time, friends and lovers exchanged letters. Not notes, not Twitter posts. Long, detailed, fervent missives, penned to entertain and report, illuminate and connect.
Sarah Ruhl has mined, from a cache of some 450 letters between two gorgeously literate kindred spirits, a finely cut gem of a play.
“Dear Elizabeth,” now at Seattle Repertory Theatre in Allison Narver’s unstuffy staging, brings us into the vital creative spirits, troubled psyches and complicated romance of two great American poets: Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop.
By Sarah Ruhl. Through March 8, Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle; $16-$52 (206-443-2222 or seattlerep.org).
Juxtaposing letter excerpts with impressionistic scenes, Ruhl dramatizes the essence of their 30-year correspondence, recently collected in the book, “Words in Air.”
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Bishop (played at the Rep by Suzanne Bouchard) was 37 in 1947, when she met Lowell (Stephen Barker Turner), then 30.
Both hailed from proper New England clans and were rising literary stars passionately devoted to poetry. But their poetic styles and personal temperaments — hers cool and repressed, his volatile and heated — were markedly different.
Bishop, later a U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize recipient, wrote elegantly observant, contained and resonant poems that only obliquely referenced her private life and closeted sexuality. Lowell (also a Pulitzer honoree) transitioned from formal meter and rhyme, to a looser, influential style with candid revelations about his manic-depressive bouts, troubled marriages and rebellion against a rigid Boston Brahmin background.
Ruhl’s remarkably cohesive script is a banquet of witty, eloquent and accessible language. It is interpreted by two superb actors on the Leo K stage, framed by L.B. Morse’s abstracted bookcase set.
Bouchard’s wry, reserved Bishop and Turner’s self-mocking, emotionally expansive Lowell express profound admiration for each other’s work. They share poems (including her exquisite “The Fish”), and give slivers of sharp critique. They inspire one another, and in crisis are each other’s lifelines.
At one point she urges him, “Please never stop writing me letters — they always manage to make me feel like my higher self … ” And in one heartbreaking missive, he laments that life might have been better had they wed.
That is unlikely. Bishop was essentially gay; Lowell was married three times. But their letters grew increasingly warm and intimate — with frequent pleas (from Lowell) to meet, and loving concern (from Bishop) about his mental health.
There are a few live encounters, affectingly evoked in silence — an affectionate idyll on the Maine coast, a botched seduction at a writer’s retreat. And there are little piques of jealousy, when Lowell reports falling for second wife Elizabeth Hardwick, and footloose Bishop announces she’s settling in Brazil, with a female lover.
The play doesn’t skim over Bishop’s severe alcoholism and depression (which the intensely private poet rarely discussed), or Lowell’s cyclical madness and domestic turmoil.
But Ruhl is at least as interested in the kind of impulses and craft required to make transcendent poetry, and the artistic discontent that can catalyze higher achievements.
What a joy, also, to ponder the art of sustained friendship between soul mates in vital need of a beloved’s stimulating, soothing words. You leave believing the thrill of language in the theater is still alive — and the art of letter-writing needs resurrecting.