Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Berkeley, Calif.
Watching two poets read and write letters to each other “shouldn’t be half as gripping” as much of Dear Elizabeth makes it, said Robert Hurwitt in the San Francisco Chronicle. Even for Tony-nominated playwright Sarah Ruhl, who with In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) proved an ability to work wonders with unusual subjects, her latest must have been a challenge. It’s difficult enough to construct a compelling drama about Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, who, despite being two of the 20th century’s most eminent American poets, “aren’t exactly household names.” But Ruhl was also barred by the writers’ estates from inventing any dialogue. Instead, she created the script only from Bishop’s and Lowell’s poems and actual correspondence, and thanks to her careful selection and arrangement of those texts, “the words take flight.”
The letters—“frank, humorous, and revealing”—resurrect a singular relationship, said Georgia Rowe in the San Francisco Examiner. For more than 30 years, Bishop and Lowell wrote each other incessantly, and though Bishop was a lesbian and Lowell married three times, deep affection courses through the correspondence. The letters trace the writers’ accumulation of triumphs—“publication, fame, and Pulitzer Prizes”—but also such blows as two divorces and the suicide of Bishop’s partner. Various effects conjured by director Les Waters—“a sudden rainstorm drenching the stage, a crescent moon moving across a night sky”—help to bring the poets’ imaginative imagery to life.
The most literal of those effects seem “too precious,” said Karen D’Souza in the San Jose Mercury News. When Lowell writes of a “ladder to the moon,” for example, that’s exactly what appears onstage. And Dear Elizabeth never fully overcomes its structural restrictions to feel like “a fully realized play instead of a study in letters.” But actor Tom Nelis “nails” Lowell’s volatility as well as his “charmingly rumpled attempts” to woo Bishop, while Mary Beth Fisher finds ways to make Bishop’s mere side-glance speak volumes. Beyond that, “Ruhl’s gentle treatment of the poems, the way she finds breathing space between life and art, can’t be overpraised.” Not only does she reawaken us to the beauty of these writers’ language; she makes palpable “the magic of what is left unsaid.”