Dear Elizabeth at Berkeley Repertory Theatre seems like a tough sell and an easy one at the same time. It's a play based on the letters between poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, so it's sure to be of interest to American poetry buffs. It's the latest collaboration between playwright Sarah Ruhl and director Les Waters, which should attract the Berkeley Rep faithful no matter what the subject. Ruhl has been dazzling the theater's audiences since her luminous upturning of the Orpheus myth, Eurydice, in 2004, returning with her new translation of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters and the world premiere of her Victorian period piece In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), which went on to New York in Ruhl and Waters's Broadway debut. Then the Rep's associate artistic director, Waters proved to be her perfect artistic partner, and their collaboration has continued now that he's artistic director of the revered Actors Theatre of Louisville. This is the West Coast premiere of Dear Elizabeth, which debuted at Yale Repertory Theatre in late 2012.
If you're not already a Ruhl/Waters fan or a Bishop/Lowell one, here's the pitch: With its text drawn from the letters between the two poets, it traces the length and depth of their friendship as an intellectual love story between the formidable minds of a man and woman who were never lovers (not least because Bishop was a lesbian) but fierce friends and confidantes, writing each other prolifically as they were seldom in the same place. Their correspondence takes them through breakdowns and drinking binges, triumph and tragedy, and always their shared passion for the craft of poetry. "When does one begin to write the real poems?" Bishop says in frustration in middle age.
The format is largely the same as A.R. Gurney's ubiquitous play Love Letters, which traces the lifetime correspondence of two would-be lovers from childhood to death. The two actors sit side-by-side at a long table as one recites the letter that the other is reading. But Ruhl and Waters mix things up by having the correspondents move around a lot, with wordless interludes acting out some of the few times the poets actually met in person. From time to time one of them will suddenly go limp and collapse to the floor, indicating a breakdown. Mary Beth Fisher has a winning wryness as Bishop that makes it easy to believe in the poet's formidable intellect. Tom Nelis's Lowell is more manic, a man of intense and shifting passions who will suddenly start staring off into space as his hand counts off the meter of lines in his head.
Annie Smart's set is surprisingly humdrum -- an oversize, mostly empty room that looks like it could be in a recreation center or something (definitely not in a house), with unattractive floral wallpaper. A couple of bookshelves are placed on opposite sides of the stage to symbolize the separate lives of the correspondents. The plainness of the room is somewhat deceptive, as it makes room for special effects along the way, some breathtaking and others oddly corny.
In the second act things get more hectic, with some shouted passages and literal climbing of the walls. In fact, a number of bizarrely literal embodiments of turns of phrase from the letters start to pop up willy-nilly in the play. Lowell talks about getting down from his "ladder to the moon" as he is in fact climbing down the ladder he was just using to gawk at a cartoonishly gigantic crescent moon. Bishop says she wishes she could start writing poetry again on another planet and a tiny planet descends for her to climb aboard. What seem intended as light, playful touches instead come off as leadenly heavy-handed symbolism. It's as if a fantastical element had to be tossed in just because that's what people expect of a Sarah Ruhl play, not because the material really warrants it.
The core of the play, the correspondence itself, is handled remarkably well. Ruhl weaves the letters together so they play like a conversation. It's probably for the best that she resists the temptation to toss in a lot of biographical details that aren't discussed in the letters, and the effect is that we get an intense sampling of the inner lives of a couple of people to whom we have not really been introduced. We're offered a taste of their poetry in the course of the play, but not quite enough to give the uninitiated a sense of whether they were particularly good. What we do get is an exciting and sobering taste of the artistic temperament, people with sharp and inventive minds and a tendency for self-destructive behavior. It's a touching portrait of a friendship between two delightfully clever people that's as intriguing for what it leaves out as for what it tells.
Dear Elizabeth runs through July 7, 2013 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit berkeleyrep.org.
All photos courtesy of kevinberne.com.