A play consisting exclusively of correspondence between poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell might at first seem more interesting to English lit majors than theater goers. But in “Dear Elizabeth,” which gets its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theater, playwright Sarah Ruhl (“The Clean House,” “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play”), frequent helmer-collaborator Les Waters and two extraordinary perfs find just the right tone, words and stage metaphors to enliven the intimate world of poets, their process and their poems into a shared theatrical experience.
When Mary Beth Fisher as Bishop and Jefferson Mays as Lowell approach a long wooden table at the center of the stage, there’s an expectation of a poet-centric version of A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters,” with better production values.
But as the missives chronologically move forward from the poets’ first meeting in 1947 and as their relationship evolves from mutual admiration to friendship to something deeper, it’s clear that Ruhl has something more in mind than a straight-forward duo-bio or greatest hits tribute to two great American poets of the 20th century.
Ruhl delicately explores, through nothing more than the letters and her own theatrical imagination, the solitude of the artist, the exactitude of the writer’s craft, the balance between confession and privacy and, in the end, why poetry matters.
Ruhl and Waters’ leaps of poetic license mostly land artfully, if sometimes whimsically, on stage: When Bishop wishes she “could start writing poetry all over again on another planet,” an orb descends and she literally goes for a ride to the stars; when Lowell talks of “ladders to the moon,” Mays climbs out of the window to take a lunar exit of his own; when emotions seem to flood their relationship, water pours into the room as they seek refuge atop their writing table, hand in hand.
There are also moments when Ruhl’s playfulness or dramatic gestures speak volumes: A deadpan stage manager (an uncredited Josiah Bania) comes out to take a bottle of booze away from Bishop; there’s a silent encounter when loving desperation turns violent; Lowell suddenly collapses to the floor, signifying his alcoholism and emotional breakdowns.
There’s a bit of literary name-dropping and insider references — “I heard Anais Nin read, pretty thin stuff though not unattractive personally,” says Lowell in a throwaway. It’s enough to tease but not enough to be annoying.
Both Chiacgo-based thesp Fisher and Mays (“I Am My Own Wife”) infuse their characters with a depth of understanding, bringing clarity to both the play’s poetry and prose.
Production values are superb, with Adam Rigg’s setting, Russell H. Champa’s lighting and Bray Poor’s sound and music (the latter with Jonathan Bell) allowing for the real and surreal to play naturally in a space that poets can call home.