Irving — Streaming now by MainStage Irving-Las Colinas is Sarah Ruhl’s play, Dear Elizabeth, directed by Michael Serrecchia. This is an epistolary play (a play based on letters) about the friendship of poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Through the cast, Kristin McCollum and Robert McCollum, the voices of these poets come through with satisfying lyricism.
If you do not follow poetry closely, it is possible that you have never heard of Elizabeth Bishop. Her work product is robust, dating back to late 1940s. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955 for her second collection of poetry. One would think that would have thrust her forward into the limelight, but this would not happen before the 1970s after she began teaching at Harvard and after she had collected a National Book Award in Poetry.
Conversely Robert Lowell, once described as the leading poet of his generation, enjoyed a somewhat different professional recognition. This is not uncommon given the time period for both poets, a period which more eagerly celebrated the male. Lowell was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry twice, in 1947 and 1974, and the National Book Award in Poetry.
These two poets, five years apart in age, met in 1947 and became fast friends. They were polar opposites, he as more of an extrovert while she was very shy, but their friendship lasted for the rest of their lives. Several scholars have studied their poetry and relationship, but playwright Sarah Ruhl is the first to have written a play about their friendship using the hundreds of letters (more than 800 pages) exchanged between them.
The playwright envisioned this piece being placed on a spare set with a table and two chairs. Dane Tuttle (set designer) has placed the long table and two chairs more upstage center. However, two opposing playing areas are downstage creating a relaxed V which allows for action in between.
Serrecchia’s decision to take this route away from extreme minimalism serves this piece well. Tuttle’s design is tasteful, creating its own quiet visual narrative, which extends through to the scenic properties (Haley White) which reflect a lot of care and thoughtfulness. Each piece, positioned on a white bookcase, says something about that character, as does the bird cage which at one point becomes covered. Christian White’s lighting design is precise and understated, perfect for this kind of piece which must allow the strength of the words and actors’ performances to dominate. Michael Robinson’s costumes fit the profiles revealed to the audience and suggest a relational stability between characters whose lives move in and out of tumult. The sound (Rich Frolich) has a distinct yet more ambient presence.
These actors work so well together, perhaps aided by knowing each other’s patterns and rhythms in a way that two formerly married actors might. Without knowing anything about the poets the audience can clearly see the differences between the two characters, their different cadences and the rhythms within their lives. The letters reveal why and how they became friends. The actors bring this forward without forcing any of the dialogue.
The pacing feels a tad awkward in the beginning, but this is perhaps more attributable to the separation built into the script and the difficulty of working from letters, which of course were not intended to seam together into a play. Each act is divided into parts, which are indicated through subtitles giving us time and place.
For those who are familiar with A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, do not go into this experience expecting a redo of that. It is not. Gurney’s piece is entirely fictional with comedic moments between two actors who kind of but not exactly fall in desire with one another. Ruhl’s play brings us into the lives of two real people, not imagined. Poetry is music in words. This creative team understands the importance of that lyricism.