Friday, February 13, 2015

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth at the Rep

Suzanne Bouchard and Steven Barker Turner in Dear Elizabeth. Photo by Andry Laurence.
Dear Elizabeth by Sarah Ruhl at the Seattle Repertory Theater is a small and intimate re-creation of 30 years in the lives of the great American poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell composed entirely from their letters to each other and from their poems. There is not a word in the play not written by either Bishop or Lowell, which is why the playwright refers to herself in program notes as the “arranger” rather than as the writer. What she did was to artfully put together words from the poets and put them into the able hands of director Allison Narver and actors Suzanne Bouchard and Stephen Barker Turner.
“There is an exquisite grace to Dear Elizabeth,” stated Acting Artistic Director Braden Abraham. “Sarah Ruhl began her writing career as a poet, so she was perfectly suited to arrange these letters into a beautiful drama. And Allison’s keen visual sensibility will be a wonderful complement to that language.”
Suzanne Bouchard and Stephen Barker Turner in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s Dear Elizabeth (2015). Photo: Alan Alabastro.
Bishop and Lowell began writing each other in 1947 and continued until Lowell’s death in 1977. During this time they traveled the world and were in and out of institutions. Bishop suffered from asthma, was an alcoholic and depressed, and the great love of her life committed suicide; Lowell had bipolar disorder. They were not lovers in the traditional sense, but they had a great and abiding love. They were critic, cheerleader and confidant to each other.
Simple wordless acting between the recitation of poems and letters string together the narratives of their lives. The manner in which they convey story elements not made clear by the words is almost impossible to describe, but in many instances involve actions so simple as when, while writing to one another, they each take off their shoes and roll up their pants, and then in the next scene they come together and act out wading in cold water to illustrate an incident that took place when Lowell visited Bishop in Maine not long after they first met. Bishop later wrote about it: “Swimming, or rather standing, numb to the waist in the freezing cold water, but continuing to talk. If I were to think of any Saint in his connection then it is St. Sebastian—he stood in a rocky basin of the freezing water, sloshing it over his handsome youthful body and I could almost see the arrows sticking out of him.”
Many elements come together to make for a satisfying evening of theater, elements such as Lowell and Bishop’s poetry, letters that were often hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking, tidbits into the thoughts and actions of other great writers whom they knew (such as Dylan Thomas who called A Streetcar Named Desire the “fuck truck”) and Bouchard and Turner’s acting. And there were a few elements that I found distracting, mostly symbolic acts such as when Lowell climbs up on the back wall and rips the moon out of the sky, and later when Bishop also climbs up and reaches for something (I know not what). If there were references within the script to explain these actions I missed them.
I did not think the bare-bones set worked well. There were a couple of desks and chairs on rollers, a few props, and a backdrop of what looked like studs in an incomplete wall. Practically, the back wall provided for a screen for projected titles (dates, times, etc.) and for a place where Bishop could put her many whiskey bottles. But it did not make for an attractive stage. The Leo K, which is the smaller of the Rep’s two theaters, is running three shows on a two-show budget this year, and that may account to the minimalist set.
Dear Elizabeth is anything but traditional theater. There is little action and no dramatic story arc, but it is intelligent, witty and heartfelt. Under Narver’s direction, Bouchard and Turner make us feel we have been granted a look into the most private and unguarded thoughts and feelings of two of our nation’s great poets.
Feb. 6–March 8, 2015. Tickets at 206-443-2222 or online at
The Seattle Repertory Theater, 155 Mercer St., Seattle, through Feb. 8

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