The poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell have never sounded so fresh and beautiful. But it’s their letters that dazzle in “Dear Elizabeth,” Sarah Ruhl’s tender and luminous play now making its West Coast premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Based on a 30-year correspondence between the great American poets, Ruhl’s epistolary play emerges as a graceful pas de deux, one that traces the separate — and often desperately lonely — lives of Bishop and Lowell, as well as the enduring artistic bond they forged throughout their careers.
As those careers ascended, both writers moved around, and their letters, read from one poet to the other, are posted from locations in New York, Maine, Miami, Italy and Brazil.
Frank, humorous and revealing, the writings trace their triumphs — publication, fame and Pulitzer Prizes — and their personal struggles with illness, alcoholism, divorce and the suicide of Bishop’s longtime companion, Lota. Famous names, from Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound to Flannery O’Connor, pop up at regular intervals.
Despite their immediate attraction, Bishop (Mary Beth Fisher) and Lowell (Tom Nelis) are distinct personalities.
She’s reticent, exacting, always ready to correct his early drafts. He’s restless, disheveled, given to lofty flights of the imagination (Maria Hooper’s excellent costumes help establish the characters and their times).
Occasionally, their disagreements are insurmountable. Her dismay at Lowell’s confessional style in “Dolphin,” which she urges him not to publish, is palpable.
Yet the two poets seem attached by “a stiff piece of wire,” Lowell notes, and their absences create a powerful yearning.
“I seem to spend my life missing you,” Bishop writes.
The production reunites Ruhl and director Les Waters, whose previous Berkeley Rep collaborations include “Eurydice.”
“Dear Elizabeth” recalls the fluid, graceful style of that production. The entire play takes place in a realistic library (set by Annie Smart, with lighting by Russell Champa, sound by Bray Poor and projections by Hannah Wasileski), but the effects are magical — a sudden rainstorm drenching the stage, a crescent moon moving across a night sky.
Still, the greatest share of magic comes from the poets themselves. Fisher’s reading of Bishop’s villanelle, “One Art,” is both a dramatic episode of arresting beauty and a poignant expression of loss.
Those who come to “Dear Elizabeth” expecting a dry and dusty recounting of literary history may be surprised at the yearning and intensity of the lives of these poets.
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre