A New York City friend of mine once said he chose the movies, plays, dances, or music he was going to see based on reviews. I was astonished. This friend, at least by any classic definition, is a very smart guy as in an algebraic geometric life fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge. Call me naive, but up to that point I thought people chose their outings based on the artists involved, not the opinion of critics. I’ll spare you a discussion on the theory of criticism, but I will say there’s a production at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse opening on Saturday, June 22, that recommends itself by virtue of the artists involved.
But first, in an attempt at equal opportunity, here’s some of what John Lahr, former New Yorker drama critic, had to say about Sarah Ruhl, author of the upcoming production of “Dear Elizabeth.” “Her plays are bold … full of astonishments, surprises, and mysteries.”
“Dear Elizabeth” is based on correspondence, from 1947 to 1977, between two titans of poetry, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Playhouse artistic and executive director MJ Bruder Munafo chose this play for artistic and practical reasons, saying, “I like Ruhl, real life stories, poetry, and Elizabeth Bishop. It’s perfect for our intimate theater.”
Ruhl is one of the most produced American living playwrights, with Broadway and national credits, and translations into 12 languages. She’s a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, a Tony Award nominee, and a MacArthur “genius” awardee.
Ruhl fashioned “Dear Elizabeth” from language in over 400 letters, collected as a book titled “Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.” In 2009, Ruhl was pregnant and experiencing mandatory bed rest. A friend, knowing Ruhl was obsessed with Bishop, gave her a copy of the book. In a recent phone conversation, Ruhl said she was fascinated by the narrative and the emotions present in the letters, saying, “As I read the letters, I began to want to hear the genius of their language out loud. I cared deeply about the two, wondering about their narrative, and how their devotion played out in language.” Ruhl continued, “The writing process was a huge amount of trial and error. Certain letters spoke about dramatic events, but I found they didn’t work for the script I was creating, as they didn’t have impact on the emotional relationship. I had to be ruthless choosing letters that would work for the play.”
Ruhl studied playwriting at Brown, and English literature for a year at Oxford, and teaches playwriting at Yale. The nonlinear elements of her scripts are influenced by Ruhl’s early education with the Chicago area’s legendary Piven Theatre Workshop, where actors use their imagination to create the scene, using little in the way of sets, props, and costumes. “My training from an early age with my mentor Joyce Piven is a huge influence on the work I create. We did ‘story theater,’ where things can transform immediately from one reality to another, without a lot of fuss. We adapted myths, poetry, literature, even Kurt Vonnegut and Flannery O’Connor. I realized pure language, not just dialogue, could be used to make theater.”
Bishop, Lowell, and Ruhl, serious thinkers all, also exhibit wit and an amusing appreciation for irony. The poets knew many of their contemporary intellectuals, sharing thoughts presumably not meant for publication. Bishop commented on Allen Ginsberg, “I find him rather admirable, except for his writing.” And Lowell, “I am dying to see you and tell you about the strange tea-party for Frost, at which Carl Sandburg suddenly turned up to everyone’s horror.”
Joann Green Breuer, director and longtime Playhouse artistic associate, is a perfect choice to interpret this script. She’s a dab hand at staging plays that use sophisticated, emotionally perceptive, witty, or at times, surreal language. “There are two things that matter: the text and those who interpret it,” Breuer explains. “The right cast does things that I, as the director, could never dream of doing. Actors bring things to life, making truth out of fiction, in real time and space.”
Cast as Bishop is Jeannie Affelder, a former student from Breuer’s days as an acting teacher at Harvard. “Breuer is a precise, honest director,” Affelder says. “She can only put the truth on stage — nothing false or contrived. She directs on multiple levels: the physical, the emotional, and the metaphorical. She comes into rehearsal knowing what she wants with the text, but she’s open to actors’ instincts.”
Raymond Fox, also starring, relates, “The entire script is taken, literally, from the actual letters, but it’s crafted so that it becomes dialogue. Nothing is declamatory. Breuer makes it easy for us to find our way. She has created an environment where the staging structure is very clear, where we are able to bring the characters to life.”
Ruhl finished our conversation about “Dear Elizabeth” saying, “It’s not poetry, it’s an intimate, transformative love story between two friends. Just allow the language to wash over you.”
“Dear Elizabeth” opens Saturday, June 22, and runs through Saturday, July 6, at the M.V. Playhouse at 7:30 pm. Find tickets and information at mvplayhouse.org or call 508-696-6300.