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Theatre in Review: Dear Elizabeth (The Women's Project)

In her notes for Dear Elizabeth, her distillation of the correspondence between the poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, the playwright, Sarah Ruhl, says, "Reading these eight hundred pages -- these strands of two lives intersecting, rarely meeting -- I thought: Why do I find this narrative so compelling?" Good question, and one not really answered by the show on stage at The Women's Project.

Bishop and Lowell were rarely in each other's company, but for more than three decades they kept up a voluminous correspondence, trading poems and confidences, and helping each other through hard times. Bishop was, of course, a lesbian, and Lowell had three storied and tumultuous marriages -- to the novelist Jean Stafford, the critic and novelist Elizabeth Hardwick, and the journalist and novelist Caroline Blackwood. Still, Bishop and Lowell seem to share a kind of emotional dependency, and, in one letter, he rather poignantly wonders about "the other life that might have been had." Based on this, Ruhl seems to have conceived of Dear Elizabeth as a kind of Love Letters, Book of the Month Club edition.

This might have worked if there was something inherently dramatic in the correspondence; if there is, it isn't to be found in the relatively brief sampling offered here. Among the mild amusements on offer is Bishop's way of extravagantly praising one of Lowell's poems, then just as quickly providing a list of offenses. ("There are only three words I would object to.") Bishop recounts getting an obscene poem from Dylan Thomas, who must not have known he was barking up the wrong tree. Bishop and Lowell lightheartedly collaborate on a fanciful plan to find her a rich husband. (Theodore Roethke is mentioned and quickly discarded.) Lowell, writing from Yaddo, refers to meeting "a little Catholic girl named Flannery O'Connor," words that even now must have the formidable O'Connor spinning in her grave. Bishop, for her part, casts a rather cold eye on Yaddo, commenting, "There's something a little sinister about the place." And, despite her long relationship with the architect Lota de Macedo Soares, you sense that Ruhl is correct when she twice quotes Bishop as saying, "If you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived."

A little bit of this chitchat goes a long way, however, and, as it becomes clear that nothing is going to happen, Dear Elizabeth starts to become just a little bit dull. Even the poets' name-dropping ways -- Anaïs Nin, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Phyllis McGinley, and Stanley Kunitz all make appearances -- do little to liven up the proceedings. When a bit of conflict finally occurs -- Bishop is appalled at Lowell's book The Dolphin, which uses altered versions of highly personal letters from Hardwick -- one is grateful for the dustup that follows. ("It is honest -- almost," says Bishop, in that marvelously withholding way.) The only surprise is that, given her own mandarin style and distaste for confessional writing, that they didn't have this fight years earlier.

Kate Whoriskey's production also pushes the star-crossed lovers agenda rather too diligently, staging little interludes where they embrace, dance, or otherwise act flirtatiously. Polly Noonan sits upstage at a desk, reading the stage directions ("Lota commits suicide") and occasionally taking part in little interventions, for example, when she grabs a whisky bottle out of Bishop's hands and rather pointedly trashes it.

Dear Elizabeth is being staged as reader's theatre, with a different cast each week. I saw J. Smith-Cameron and John Douglas Thompson. Under these circumstances, it wouldn't be fair to expect fully formed characterizations. Still, Cameron does give a sense of the rather cagey woman who, moving around the world, keeps tabs on Lowell with a mixture of affection and disapproval. Dealing with a text that only lightly alludes to Lowell's mental problems and (perhaps significantly) leaps right over his conversion to Catholicism, Thompson settles for a smooth and mellifluous reading of the text. Others taking on the roles in the weeks to come will include Becky Ann Baker, Peter Scolari, Cherry Jones, David Aaron Baker, Ellen McLaughlin, Rinde Eckert, and Mia Katigbak.

Antje Ellermann's set, a collection of steamer trunks set against a white cyc, alludes to the poets' wanderlust, but most of its visual appeal comes from Mary Louise Geiger's warm pools of light. Anita Yavich has provided flattering outfits for both actors. The sound design, by Jill BC Du Boff and Emily Auciello, includes crashing waves, seagulls, Mendelson's "Wedding March," a rendition of "Sous le Ciel de Paris," Bing Crosby singing "Let it Snow," bits of French Renaissance vocal music, and Ella Fitzgerald singing "Where or When."

In the end, it's hard to identify the ideal audience for Dear Elizabeth. Those who know little or nothing about Bishop and Lowell are likely to feel rather mystified, but their ardent fans may feel rather shortchanged by this thinnish double portrait. The best way to get to know either is through the poems: If Dear Elizabeth encourages that, I suppose it will have done some good. -- David Barbour

(5 November 2015)

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