Imagine "Love Letters" if Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner were literary giants of the 20th century rather than spoiled, star-crossed figments of A.R. Gurney’s imagination. But wait, you don’t have to. Tony-nominated dramatist Sarah Ruhl ("The Clean House," "Eurydice") has done it for you in "Dear Elizabeth," an epistolary play culled from 30 years of letters shot back and forth between poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, who were connected at the hip but seldom in the same geographical place.
Not that in "Dear Elizabeth" the two subjects sit together behind a table like Spalding Gray seen double, as with "Love Letters." Fans of Ruhl will not be surprised that her 2012 play (boiled down from "Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell," edited by Thomas Travisano) abounds in magical-realist touches. Most of them are in the script but have been embellished in the play’s area premiere by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, which is gently directed by A. Nora Long on a whimsical jumble of a set by Shelley Barish, a cabin-like, cranny-filled structure awash in subtitles denoting places and dates and supported by a pillar of books.
Remember books? Then you probably also remember letters, and this elegant compilation of epistles, plopped into an age of shorthand, tweets, and emoticons, made me sorely miss them. Bishop and Lowell, both with strong New England ties, met in 1947 when she was 36 and he was 30. His second book of poems, "Lord Weary’s Castle" (which went on to win his first Pulitzer Prize), and her first, "North & South," had just been published. Though their styles were quite different, the two formed an enduring mutual admiration society, often feeding on each other’s work. And though there are gaps in the correspondence, they exchanged revealing, often witty letters until shortly before Lowell’s fatal heart attack in 1977.(She died two years later but not before writing “North Haven, in memoriam Robert Lowell”.)
Theirs was a friendship, never a love affair: Lowell was married three times, to writers Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Lady Caroline Blackwood; Bishop was a lesbian, the love of whose life was Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares. Ruhl, however, makes the emotional pivot of her play one 1957 letter in which Lowell confides that for him Bishop was the regretted road not taken. “But asking you,” he confides, “is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.”
This letter refers back to one of few idylls the poets spent together, negotiating a cold Maine sea soon after they met. Lowell wrote about it in his poem “Water.” But the occasion is commemorated at the Lyric by actors Laura Latreille and Ed Hoopman stripping down to swimsuits as waves of blue light lap the stage and a trap door opens like a small swimming hole. Lowell’s unspoken proposal and Bishop’s unspoken evasion are draped across their shoulders as captions on beach towels since Ruhl chooses not to supply imagined dialogue for the poets’ few actual encounters. (All of the words in the play are either from the letters or from the writers’ poems, most of the latter excerpted when I would have preferred whole enchiladas.)
Later, when Lowell’s confessional letter is spoken, the two characters climb a spiral stair to a small balcony, open a suitcase containing a miniature pool, and Hoopman’s Lowell speaks very intimately of poetry, free will, and missed opportunity before the suitcase is slammed shut and the correspondents beat an embarrassed retreat. It is at moments like these, where the characters are allotted a little visual poetry to go along with what they conjure themselves, that both play and production are at their strongest (though the metaphors can also be too literal, as when a lantern is passed between the pair on a pulley).
Though both Lowell and Bishop were arguably difficult people who lived difficult, sometimes stormy lives, "Dear Elizabeth" is a delicate and sympathetic portrait. There are references to Lowell’s manic depression, which led to stints in McLean Hospital, and to Bishop’s battle with alcoholism, but there are no lurid depictions of lost weekends or life in the snake pit. What Ruhl concentrates on are the writers’ sharply detailed depictions of the world, their inner landscapes, the loneliness of a life lived in art, and their very tender if astute regard for each other’s work. Their one fierce conflict turns on Bishop’s disapproval of Lowell’s exploitation of ex-wife Hardwick’s letters in his 1974 “The Dolphin.” “Art just isn’t worth that much,” she insists, though apparently he, one of the kahunas of the confessional movement, disagrees.
Wisely, both Latreille and Hoopman offer sensitive, understated performances pretty much devoid of imitation but with signs of encroaching age. Latreille’s Bishop is a sort of earthy schoolmarm with a loose laugh and a tight hair-do, Hoopman’s Lowell a lanky, boyish courtier in the poet’s signature specs. Though Latreille supplies a hard-hitting rendition of Bishop’s “One Art,” neither actor attempts to imitate the poets’ reading of their own works. Their interspersed recitations, though, do remind us why we’re here in the first place: to revel, however decorously, in the power of language.
Carolyn Clay was for more than 35 years theater editor and chief drama critic for the Boston Phoenix. She is a past winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.