Poignant ‘Dear Elizabeth’ at Vienna Theatre pens a true friendship

Sarah Ruhl's play in letters between poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.

Dear Elizabeth, performed by a two-person cast and streamed online by Vienna Theatre Company, is a feast for fans of 20th-century literature, or even just those interested in stories of friendship. Sarah Ruhl’s play traces the 30-year relationship of American poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell through their voluminous correspondence and their poems. In the performance attended by this reviewer, Jocelyn Steiner and Kevin Walker portrayed the two characters (with some assistance from stagehand Jon Roberts), seated at desks on either side of a movie screen that served to display their various locations, their thoughts, and the occasional wry observation, like “They age somehow.”

Beginning with the first letter from Elizabeth to Robert in 1947, the friendship blossoms quickly, nourished by common professional and personal interests. They comment insightfully on each other’s work, share anecdotes from their travels and observations of nature, and gossip about what it’s like to swim in Hemingway’s pool or go with William Carlos Williams to visit his mother.

Fish Poem – Jocelyn Steiner as Elizabeth Bishop reading her poem ‘The Fish’ while Kevin Walker as Robert Lowell records her in ‘Dear Elizabeth.’ Bishop finds it “strangely intimate reading a poem aloud for one other person.” Photo by Turner Bridgforth.

As in real life (Bishop and Lowell were able to meet in person only a few times), the two rarely come near each other. And even at moments when the characters do meet, they stay at a cautious distance, for obvious reasons. The social distancing required for this performance even works in the play’s favor sometimes, as when Robert tries to go in for a hug and Elizabeth wards him off. (A large rock brought in and placed in front of the screen, partway through the first act, serves as both a point of connection and a means of separation.) The sense of what might have been for the two of them haunts the play, hinted at through gestures, suggestions on the screen, and half-veiled references to things that happened, or almost happened, when they were together.

Still, as their respective romantic partners come and go, lost to divorce or, in one heart-rending case, to death, Bishop and Lowell’s relationship goes on, gathering strength and intimacy with the years. “I seem to spend my life missing you,” Robert observes at one point, a remark that can be taken in more than one way.

Jocelyn Steiner as Elizabeth Bishop and Kevin Walker as Robert Lowell in ‘Dear Elizabeth.’ The two poets continue writing to each other when they are living in Rio de Janeiro and New York City. Photo by Turner Bridgforth.

In the second act, Elizabeth bears with equanimity the news of Robert’s latest divorce and his new romance, but is appalled when his new poem makes free use of his former wife’s letters, even daring to alter them. “Art just isn’t worth that much,” she rebukes him, choosing to be honest even at the risk of straining the friendship that means so much to them both. Even at such times of stress and intensity, the two poets write to each other with an eloquence that’s a pleasure to listen to, and Steiner and Walker interpret those words with great thoughtfulness as well as great feeling. They bring true poignancy, as well, to scenes where one character is pouring out anguish while the other either rambles on in happy ignorance, or tries to deflect with breezy chatter.

The production design is necessarily simple, but lighting designers Kimberly Crago and Jeff Auerbach use light and shadow effectively, particularly when Robert spirals into a bipolar episode. Jon Roberts, as projection designer, is responsible for some striking effects on the movie screen, as in a scene where Elizabeth blows bubbles from her balcony. The camera, operated by videographer Turner Bridgforth, generally stays on a steady two-shot, but now and then uses a different angle or zooms in on one or the other of the actors, also to good effect. The Zoom setup isn’t necessarily the most conducive to absorbing this small, intimate show, but under Jessie Roberts’s sure-handed direction, the cast and crew make the most of the strong material they have.

Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, with one 10-minute intermission.

Dear Elizabeth was filmed live and streamed online March 26 through April 3, 2021, at Vienna Theatre Company, viennatheatrecompany.org.

(On March 26, 27, 28, Heather Plank played Elizabeth Bishop, and Tom Flatt played Robert Lowell.)


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