‘Dear Elizabeth’

Letters of love and friendship between two great poets.

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Actors Jeannie Affelder, left, who plays Elizabeth Bishop, and Raymond Fox, who plays Robert Lowell, during "Dear Elizabeth." —MJ Bruder Munafo

Although “Dear Elizabeth” is about poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, there is scarcely a poem in sight. In fact, playwright Sarah Ruhl fashioned the dialogue entirely from the correspondence between the two over the span of 30 years. It is, as director Joann Green Breuer says, “a conversation in a language that is expressive and real.” Also, don’t expect a play in which two actors simply sit on stage reading one another’s letters aloud. Despite the simplicity of the concept, “Dear Elizabeth” is a richly nuanced production about the evolving relationship of two friends and colleagues that is profoundly touching. The acting, directing, and lighting, as well as stage, sound, and costume design work seamlessly together to support an emotionally moving experience.

The actors are simply dressed in slacks and subdued shirts, and inhabit a fairly spare set in which every element offers visual information that supports the characters and story. Bishop often sits on a tall, slim-line chair behind a white Ikea-like desk that positions her almost standing, so that she never seems completely at rest, and can easily get up to move around. Lowell, on the other hand, has a large upholstered chair facing us that, along with the erasable marker board, is deftly used to emphasize points in the play, to evoke a study. 

Bishop and Lowell met at a literary party when he was 30 years old and she 36 in 1947, and their early letters bespeak of their admiration for each other’s work. Nonetheless, from the start they are frank with one another about anything that doesn’t seem quite right. Bishop says after enthusiastically praising one of Lowell’s poems, “There are only three words I take objection to at my most carping.”

But the meat of the play is Bishop and Lowell’s back and forth about the trajectory of their lives and relationships — both theirs and with others.

They both have a deadpan wit. For instance, Bishop adds ironically at the end of a letter about her coming to visit Lowell, “P.S. I’ll have a canary with me,” or when writing about staying in Hemingway’s house reports, “The swimming pool is wonderful. It lights up at night. I find that each underwater bulb is five times the voltage of the one bulb in the lighthouse across the street, so that the pool must be visible to Mars. It’s wonderful to swim in a sort of green fire so one’s friends look like luminous frogs.” Lowell has his own bons mots, such as when responding to the news that Bishop is recovering well from her asthma with her medication: “How I thank God that my imaginary asthma was cured by a chiropractor.”

While the two of them never seem to lose their sense of dry humor, they also travel through the vagaries of one another’s lives. For Lowell, his three marriages and accompanying two divorces, the gloriously happy birth of his daughter, as well as his manic depression and many hospitalizations and professional struggles. “I find that every day I less like writing letters and more like getting them. It’s the same with poems,” he honestly shares.

Bishop pens at one point, “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.” We rejoice for her when she finds a deep partnership with her lover Lota de Macedo Soares, whom she moves to Brazil to be with. It is achingly painful then to watch Bishop when she hears of Lota’s suicide, brilliantly announced by Lowell writing “Lota commits suicide” on the board for her and us to see.

From the mentions of their constantly changing locations, it seems that both Bishop and Lowell traveled a great deal, living almost itinerant lifestyles. However, just as they rarely meet together onstage, the two infrequently seemed to be able to visit together, although constantly imploring one another to do so. When Bishop moves to Brazil permanently to be with Lota and writes of her happiness at long last, Lowell confesses, “I’m sure you’re as happy as you sound, but I don’t approve at all … I would gladly spoil all your fun just to have you back.”

Despite the scarcity of their meetings, we can feel their deep abiding love for one another. Lowell at one point shares that he believed “It was just a matter of time before I would propose, and I half believed you would accept … but I didn’t say anything then.” He continues that he was determined to ask but was scared of spoiling things. 

Both Jeannie Affelder as Bishop, returning after performing at the Playhouse last year, and Raymond Fox as Lowell, here for the first time, don’t seem to act their characters as much as embody them. Affelder captures Bishop’s shyer nature as Fox does Lowell’s more outgoing, talkative one.

Breuer tells me that you don’t need to know anything about either the poets or poetry, or in fact anything about the play at all, to be captivated by it. Actually, she prefers you “to come in knowing as little as possible. Everything you need to know is in the play. Just take it in and live with Elizabeth and Robert moment by moment.”

Dear Elizabeth” runs at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse through July 6. No latecomers can be admitted.