“Dear Elizabeth” at Seattle Rep

DE_057_200

Suzanne Bouchard and Stephen Barker Turner in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s Dear Elizabeth (2015). Photo: Alan Alabastro.

Love stories come in all shapes and sizes, and this is one of the more tender, if unusual, ones. For much of their adult lives the prize-winning poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop maintained a close relationship that is preserved in their letters, the more than 400 letters they wrote to each other over decades. Their love was deep, despite the fact that she was a lesbian and he was married (multiple times).

Of course their bond developed over the poetry, and in this gentle play by Sarah Rule, it grows in intensity with each passing year. Rule has her characters recite their poems to one another and read them aloud when they are apart. What a treat to hear two consummate actors deliver the verses.

Poets are often fragile individuals. They see and feel more than the rest of us do, and here Suzanne Bouchard and Stephen Barker Turner capture both the extraordinary intellect and the delicate emotions of their characters. Elizabeth was an alcoholic, so severe an alcoholic that in desperation she’d even drink wood alcohol. Robert, or Cal as he preferred being called, suffered from bipolar disorder and had a number of stays at McLean, the renowned mental institution and research facility outside of Boston where Sylvia Plath, Ann Sexton and even James Taylor and Ray Charles were treated.

The story of Bishop and Lowell plays out on a Spartan stage (by L. B. Morse)…desk, books, a couple of chairs, the suggestion of bookcases. There’s no painted backdrop, just the concrete of the back wall.

Director Allison Narver has deliberately honed the stagecraft down to essentials, and by doing so she reinforces our attention on the connection between these two poets, the importance of the nurturing and feedback they provided one another, and the role poetry played in their lives. She allows no curtain to fall at intermission. Instead, the two poets, in isolation occupy their separate spaces on the stage, doing the difficult work that poets do.

The play reveals more than their relationship. It’s an exploration of American poetry in the mid to late 20th Century. There are references to Dylan Thomas and Marianne Moore as well as to Yaddo and other writers’ colonies.

Subtle yet emotionally powerful this is a play that satisfies heart and mind.

Through March 8 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center, 155 Mercer St., Seattle (206-443-2222 or www. seattlerep.org).

Leave a Reply