Dear Elizabeth, by Sarah Ruhl based on the book Words in the Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt; Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Set in Elizabeth Bishop's home and Robert Lowell's home: Andrea Syglowski and Chris Henry Coffey; photo: Taylor Crichton
"The words won't change again. Sad friend, you cannot change."
Andrea Syglowski as Elizabeth Bishop; photo: Taylor Crichton
Playwright Sarah Ruhl wrote one of my favorite plays, "In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play." She made the subject of female manipulation therapy into a most entrancing event in the theater, so telling the story of an unusual friendship between poets should be a no-brainer for her. Like the characters in her other play, the two protagonists in "Dear Elizzabeth" have intimacy issues. Both characters, famous poets, wrote about their feelings and their intellectual regard for those feelings in poems, letters and articles. The material is there to be used and truth is truly stranger than the fiction it inspires. The play about Elizabeth Bishop, a former Poet Laureate of the United States (1949-50)and Robert Lowell, the sixth Poet Laureate consultant to the Library of Congress (l947-48) should be a grand and fascinating one to relate.
Her play, currently on stage at the Dorset Theatre Festival in Vermont, is less satisfying than it should be for all that has gone into it. The two poets met about 1940 and from 1947 until death they were close friends and confidantes, and they inspired one another's work. Younger, he found important success first but she ultimately became the more important figure in 20th century poetry, pointed to by Lowell as the person who inspired him in his work more than anyone else. She remained single while he married three times. She was a lesbian whose lover committed suicide; he was a bipolar man who was institutionalized more than once. These are vibrant, fascinating people whose friendship is characterized by their letters to one another, letters that serve as principal inspiration for this play.
The problem with the play is this: two literary figures who write poetry and rarely ever meet do not make a dynamic duo. They may be individually fascinating. Their friendship may be fascinating. However their separate existences leave them separate friends and the gap between them cannot be easily filled, especially when their chief emotional charges are outside their own heavy-duty friendship and cannot play roles in the story of these two people. "No man is an island," and in this play we have two atolls, floating islands who occasionally pass in the dark ocean waters of life glancing off one another and communicating through the tropical birds who fly between them.
There is beautiful language in this play and I love hearing beautiful language beautifully spoken which brings up another problem in this production. Chris Henry Coffey as Robert Lowell has a tendency to face his own shoes when delivering a high numbr of his lines which keeps them from reaching even the fifth row of this intimate theater. To not hear one of the two people in the play makes this show into a veritable monologue which is not the play Ruhl has written. It is inconceivable to me that any director would have made this odd performance style choice, so it must be that the actor himself has divorced himself from communication. It may be that the tall poet spoke in such a way. I never saw or heard him. However if he did indeed cut himself off from personal interaction in this way it is still no excuse for an actor in a play to follow suit. Here we have only the two people whose important and sometimes difficult friendship we are asked to witness and explore and one of them secretes himself behind an iceberg of verbal isolation. This may have frustrated Bishop and it certainly frustrates me.
Andrea Syglowski is much more available in her role as Bishop. Her voice is spectacular and she shovels life-force with a man's ambitious verve into her character's voice, movement and reactions. Her arm gestures are character driven. Her body positions and poses are character driven also. She handles the language of the play, Bishop's written words, as spoken dialogue and not as literary collection. Unlike Coffey's Lowell, she does her own version of Ethel Merman's "Sing out Louise" call in "Gypsy." She is as out front as it is possible to be as she faces the ice-bound Lowell on this stage. She works hard enough for both of them.
Chris Henry Coffey as Robert Lowell; photo: Taylor Crichton
Chris Henry Coffey and Andrea Syglowski; photo: Taylor Crichton
I don't know the work of director Adrienne Campbell-Holt. Her vision for this play bothers me. It is as though she does not trust the material, for her characters in their own sets and beyond are constantly in motion. She has instilled a restlessness which, if true to Bishop and Lowell, would have prevented them from being the creative people they were. It may seem more boring to watch two people sitting at desks, but it has worked well in other plays, Jerome Kilty's "Dear Liar" about George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell,for example, or everyone's favorite two character epistolary play, "Love Letters." Here, rather than giving the actors a shot at expressing themselves in a reasonable form, the director has made them play scenes where none existed.
They do all this on a wonderful set by John McDermott who also designed the period appropriate costumes. Kevin Ramser has created the superb projections which illuminate time, place and thought brilliantly. Grant W.S. Yeager's lighting brings us moods and feelings while allowing us to see what is available to see in these two characters. Amy Altadonna has taken her sound design work to a serious place of realism.
I would have loved to have known either of these characters. I adore poetry and after Edna St. Vincent Millay's death in 1950 these were two of the finest poets in America during my long lifetime. Apart they forged new visions of language; together they created a unique friendship which never brought either of them complete satisfaction. How intriguing they should be and how sad that this production does not give them a new chance to create together and apart their special world for us. How very said, indeed.
Dear Elizabeth plays at the Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Chesney Road, Dorset, Vermont, through July 23. For tickets and information call the box office at 802-867-2223 or go on line at dorsettheatrefestival.org.