Tuesday, December 22, 2015

"Dear Elizabeth" - The Enduring Power of Friendship

By Judd Hollander

Finding a kindred soul can be a wonderful thing. Someone to tell your personal thoughts, feelings and hopes without fear of condemnation or dismissal. Such was the case with the poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, their story told in Sarah Ruhl's Dear Elizabeth, now being presented by the Women's Project Theater with a rotating cast. J. Smith-Cameron and John Douglas Thompson assuming the roles the week I saw the show. Ruhl taking her inspiration from the book "Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell", and using the poets' own words - as well as a selection of their poetry - to help bring these two individuals to life.

The relationship between the two begins in 1947 when Bishop first sends Lowell a letter. Lowell, familiar with Bishop's work, responds in kind, noting that Elizabeth is the only "real" person he's had a chance to talk to in his recent travels. As time passes, their friendship deepens, as evidenced by their increasingly familiar and intimate written salutations to one another. The two talking not only about their respective poems and projects, but also about what's going on in their lives at the moment, as well as the hope they will have a chance to meet. 

Through their words, the audience soon begins to get an idea of just who these people are. Elizabeth for her part, coming across as a rather shy, introverted woman. Telling Robert at one point that when he writes her epitaph, "you must say that I was the loneliest person who ever lived". Robert on the other hand, is much more of an outgoing fellow, with a seeming lust for life and all that it has to offer. Kind of like Ernest Hemmingway in that approach. Hemmingway being one of Bishop's and Lowell's contemporaries and one of the many literary names mentioned in passing via their correspondence. Ezra Pound, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams and Flannery O'Conner, being among the others. The names serving as indicators of the circles in which Lowell and Bishop moved and the times in which they lived. 

Eventually, a sort of shorthand develops between the two. One evidenced as much by what wasn't put down on paper as what actually was. This is especially true when either questions the other's work. There's an initial hesitancy from the one making the query, while couching their point in open admiration and gentle teasing. In the same vein, the one on the receiving end of this advice accepts it with an air of rueful acknowledgment. They not really wanting to have their work criticized in the first place, but ultimately accepting it; knowing the comment to be valid.

This shorthand manner in their communications is also visible when the two talk about their more personal situations. Such as Bishop's problems with asthma and her struggle with alcohol, and Lowell's various episodes of Manic Depression and his various hospital stays. Many of these situations are described almost in a passing manner. The two knowing each other well enough by now and not needing to really elaborate, or to ask questions; other than offering help to the other if needed.

Thompson does a great job with Lowell, showing him to be a man who embraces life, while looking for the "real" things in it, whatever they happen to be at the moment. The actor also nicely conveys Lowell's great joy at becoming a first time father. A moment rather ironic when one remembers Lowell's previous comments regarding children he happened to come across. Smith-Cameron's silent response here is also quite telling. According to Ruhl, in her very involving and informative program notes, one of Bishop's great regrets was never having a child. 

Smith-Cameron does an excellent turn as Bishop, making her a much more ethereal creature than Lowell. One, if not afraid of life, then certainly not embracing it in the same head-on terms Lowell seems to do. We also see traces of wistfulness in her, she at times wondering how her life would have turned out had things been different. Bishop and Lowell never being at the same relationship stage in their lives at the same time, which may have been a reason why nothing more personal ever seriously developed between the two. Yet even when that possibility is presented to her, be it Lowell's proposal of marriage or an address to write to him where he wife wouldn't be aware, Bishop declines the offer.

Kate Whoriskey's direction is letter perfect, giving the actors enough leeway to move about the stage and bring life to the words they're speaking. Rather than keeping them seated at a pair of writing desks throughout the show. In a nice twist, the actors never specifically acknowledge each other while writing their respective letters, but do so at times when listening to the other speak. The glances and gestures adding an extra emotional layer to the words being spoken.

Scenic design by Antej Ellermann fits the story nicely, the space projecting a semi-cramped feel while filled with bric-a-brac and various materials that writers of Bishop's and Lowell's time would have used. Lighting by Mary Louse Geiger helped to give a subtle emphasis to the work when either of the actors recited (and performed) some of Bishop's and Lowell's poetry.

Part acting exercise, part biographical piece and a well-told story throughout, Dear Elizabeth offers a touching glimpse into two people who found joy both in the world and in each other. It's a play well worth seeing and their story is well worth knowing. 

Also in the cast is Polly Noonan.

Featuring: Polly Noonan (Stage Manager), J. Smith-Cameron (Elizabeth Bishop), John Douglas Thompson (Robert Lowell).

Dear Elizabeth
by Sarah Ruhl
Scenic Design: Antje Ellermann
Costume Design: Anita Yavich
Lighting Design: Mary Louise Geiger
Sound Design: Jill Bc Du Boff, Emily Auciello
Production Stage Managers: C. Renee Alexander, Bernita Robinson
Production Manager: Steve Rosenberg
Casting: Kelly Gillespie
Press Representatives: Vivacity Media Group, Leslie Baden Papa, Whitney Holden Gore

Directed by Kate Whoriskey

Presented by Women's Project Theater
McGinn/Cazale Theatre 
2162 Broadway (at 76th Street)
Closed: December 5, 2015

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