‘Dear Elizabeth” is a deceptively innocent title for Sarah Ruhl’s 2012 two-hander. Drawing on the 800 pages of letters that Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop wrote each other, as published in the 2008 compilation “Words in Air,” Pulitzer finalist Ruhl has devised a delicate dance of distance and desire as the two American poets circle each other, rarely standing in the same place. The play calls for the two actors to read letters back and forth, but at times what they do, or don’t, speaks volumes more than what they say. The current Lyric Stage production, with Laura Latreille and Ed Hoopman, says, and does, a lot.
“Dear Elizabeth” runs two hours (with a 20-minute intermission), so we’re hearing just a fraction of what Lowell and Bishop told each other. Ruhl has said that she didn’t want to focus on “the more salacious details” of their lives. Even before they met, in 1947, there would have been plenty to focus on. Bishop’s father died when she was 8 months old; her mentally ill mother was institutionalized when Bishop was 5. Lowell’s girlfriend Jean Stafford suffered a broken nose and a fractured skull when he smashed up the car he was driving her in; two years later, after they married, he broke her nose again. During World War II he spent five months in Danbury federal prison as a conscientious objector. Lowell suffered from bipolar disorder, Bishop from alcoholism, asthma, and depression.
Ruhl only hints at much of this, though often poetically, and “Dear Elizabeth” also avoids the two poets’ various infidelities toward their partners. It’s as if, at least in Ruhl’s selection, they wanted to be at their best for each other. They read each other’s poems and offer critiques. They miss each other a lot, but they don’t spend much time together. “In the end,” Lowell writes, “the water was too cold for us.”
Ruhl allows that you could do the play with “a table and two chairs.” That’s not the Lyric way. Shelley Barish sets this production in a kind of shared attic of houses and memories. There’s a stack of books stretching from floor to ceiling, as if it were holding up the house. The dusty bric-a-brac includes tennis rackets, hurricane lamps, a candlestick, a Victrola, and an overturned Radio Trail wagon. A spiral iron staircase leads to a second playing level. It’s all imaginative, and imaginatively detailed.
That’s also true of the acting, and of A. Nora Long’s direction. Hoopman is a bluff, self-assured, occasionally naive Lowell; Latreille a girlish, flirty, occasionally disingenuous Bishop. She’s thoughtful to his thoughtless; both are spontaneous rather than studied. They age along with the characters: Hoopman’s hair gets more mussed, Latreille’s voice lowers and loses the champagne bubble. And most of Ruhl’s optional staging conceits materialize, often in delightfully low-tech fashion; at one point Bishop and Lowell talk via tin-can telephone.
Even the subtitles, which key us to events ranging from Lowell’s marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick to the suicide of Bishop’s longtime Brazilian lover, Lota, are deployed in novel ways. Best of all, Lowell and Bishop don’t get airbrushed; the shortcomings that fall between the lines on Ruhl’s printed page are wistfully palpable. It’s painful when Latreille and Hoopman are together, and painful when they’re not. That’s a poem.Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.