‘Dear Elizabeth’ brings to life the letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

Playwright Sarah Ruhl and director Les Waters reunite for new play at the Berkeley Rep

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A theatrical production that takes its entire script from a 30-year correspondence of letters between two 20th-century poets may not sound like the most appealing of plays for the audiences of today. However, Pulitzer- and Tony-nominated playwright Sarah Ruhl and director Les Waters have masterfully crafted together one of the most exquisite and beautifully delicate of theatrical works with “Dear Elizabeth.” The drama, which follows the complicated relationship between renowned American poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell through their letters, is currently having its West Coast premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Collaborators Ruhl and Waters are no strangers to Berkeley Rep. Together, they staged “Eurydice” and “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)” on the Roda Theatre stage in 2004 and 2009, respectively. The latter went on to Broadway in the same year and snagged three Tony nominations in 2010. Once again, the two are back with another piece on love, desire and loss — this time, painting the lives of two famed poets and chronicling the intimate details of their passionate friendship through their very own words from their initial meeting to Lowell’s heart attack and death in 1977.

The set is staged with a table in the very middle, with one half of the stage belonging to Elizabeth and the other to Robert. As the play opens, Mary Beth Fisher’s Elizabeth Bishop and Tom Nelis’s Robert Lowell take their seats beside each other at the table and immediately begin reading aloud their letters. This is how the production plays out through much of the work. However, there are sporadic moments — mostly in the second act — when the two act out their dramas. As the play progresses, literal embodiments of phrases and words from the correspondence of letters begin to pop up from all sides of the stage.

Lowell was a womanizer who married three times throughout the course of his life and suffered bouts of manic depression. Bishop mostly had romantic relationships with women and struggled with alcoholism. He was impulsive. She was restrained. They were each other’s confidants and critics. “Dear Elizabeth” not only celestially captures the distinct personalities, passions and art of Bishop and Lowell but also exposes a true platonic love story between two esteemed writers through their very own words. It provides a compelling glimpse into two very different lives of two very different artists — tied together by their love, respect and affection for words and for each other. While the two spent their lives in separate parts of the country and sometimes of the world, their letters tell of a touching relationship not bounded by distance.

With a mere cast of two, Ruhl’s “Dear Elizabeth” couldn’t have called for better actors. Mary Beth Fisher enthralls as the lonely but strong-willed Elizabeth Bishop, while Tom Nelis dazzles with charm as the passionate and manic Robert Lowell.

Ruhl’s “Dear Elizabeth” is weaved together brilliantly and plays out like a tasteful conversation. It is a powerful piece of work, smartly and gracefully designed for the romantics. The production also finds its strength in its technical allure — with enchanting lighting effects by Russell Champa, a magical set design by Annie Smart and a delectable musical score by sound designer Bray Poor. “Dear Elizabeth” is a pleasing play that excels in all aspects of theatrical arts — from the script to the acting to the aesthetics.

From now until July 7, “Dear Elizabeth” will be playing at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre on Tuesdays through Sundays.

Contact Michelle Lin at [email protected].