Anyone who thinks that letters are boring has probably received too few of them. As for letters not personally received, sometimes they are even better: Here one may find the subjective raw material that conventional biographies too often dry out. Still, to construct a play entirely from letters, as Sarah Ruhl has done in Dear Elizabeth, now in production at Berkeley Rep, is a hell of a stunt to pull off — especially with both subjects’ estates requiring that not one word of their proprietary prose be altered. What results is a play that is surprisingly strong in most respects and unsurprisingly lacking in others.
The play features the correspondence of two American poets, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, over the course of their dear but peculiar friendship, beginning in the early 1940s and ending in the late 1970s. While both Bishop and Lowell earned the esteem of literary critics, neither is exactly a household name — perhaps a consequence of the fact that each of them was something of a lone wolf in his or her artistry, dismissing the poetry movements or trends that tend to bring wider recognition.
It is probably this stubborn individualism that established their attraction to one another. It is also, however, probably the reason that their friendship, while never entirely platonic, remained almost entirely epistolary. For much of the time depicted in Dear Elizabeth, Lowell is planted in the Northeast while Bishop holes up in Cuba (she knew Hemingway) or Brazil, with her beloved friend Lota, who remains a compelling specter in this two-actor play. Bishop and Lowell meet on only a handful of occasions, fueling the narrative’s main pull, which is their unrealized romance.
That means that the bulk of this play is spent with both characters seated at a desk or perhaps perusing a bookshelf, reciting their letters toward the audience, working in only fleeting glances toward one another upon giving or receiving a tender line. For all the limitations imposed by this technique, the scenes manage to be mostly compelling, if for no other reason than for the opportunity to hear the now-rarified beauty of epistolary prose.
The scenes in which Bishop and Lowell do rendezvous are wordless. To make up for language in these, Ruhl supplies her own sometimes heavy-handed symbolism. For instance, in one scene a raised water dam breaks, dumping a torrential wave upon the stage. The effect is impressive, but one has to wonder what sort of limitations this spectacle placed on the production’s scenic design — a floral wallpapered interior that is either drab and claustrophobic or, with the addition of oddly colored lighting effects, dreamlike and gaudy. It feels at times like an attempt to overcompensate for the expressive blockages inherent in a play consisting mostly of recited letters.
Such blockage is most apparent in this production’s Lowell (Tom Nelis). Upon reading a biographical essay on Lowell included in the production’s accompanying booklet, a viewer of the play would likely be shocked to find phrases like “an uncouth, neurotic, psychopathic murderer-poet” or “gracefully insane” used to describe the subject at different ends of his life. Indeed, while the character makes fairly frequent reference to his bouts of drinking, mania, womanizing, domestic unhappiness, and commitments to sanitariums, his attitude on stage belies such behavior completely. Save for a few noteworthy exceptions, Lowell comes across as essentially gallant and even-keeled.
Nelis, Ruhl, and director Les Waters are all implicated by this discrepancy to a degree. For instance, consider that while both characters occasionally mention drinking, Bishop (played brilliantly by Mary Beth Fisher) actually imbibes on stage far more copiously, and when she does, she slurs — one of several respects in which her character comes across as a compellingly vulnerable and human while Lowell demonstrates unaccountable resilience.
Perhaps Lowell gives the impression of being strong and steady in this play, despite his own accounting to the contrary, because the tone of his letters projects him so. Indeed, even supposing he could put his own troubled psychology to paper, the laws of letter writing would forbid him from doing it. The letter, as beautifully demonstrated by Dear Elizabeth, is an art form in itself, the primary components of which are economy, wit, and grace.
So we miss out on one of America’s best playwrights showing us, through all the machinations of theater, what a “psychopathic murder-poet” or “gracefully insane” Lowell might be like, or conjecturing about the roots of Bishop’s lonesome, perhaps self-defeating individualism, because their letters tend to skirt these characteristics. Those would have been good stories. But what we do get — the story of a rare friendship, told through unaltered letters — is certainly rarer and perhaps truer.