A love story told in letters from two brilliant but damaged poets seems an unlikely topic for an engaging, comic and tragic play. Yet so it is, with Sarah Ruhl’s “Dear Elizabeth,” Renegade’s current production.
Famous poets, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, had rare meetings over their 30-year relationship. Instead, they poured out their souls to each other in their over 400 letters, published in a 2008 book called “Words in the Air.” These two tortured writers dealt with their demons, he with bi-polar disorder and she with alcoholism, by turning to the person they each considered their best friend.
While they each surrounded themselves with many of the most famous writers of the day, they often preferred to be alone, making one of their most important human connections one that was separated by cities and even continents. In the letters, they give each other honest advice on their writing, including their poems for the other’s candid reviewing.
Although he married three times (none of the marriages happy), and she had a long relationship with a female architect, they longed for a life together. He laments in one of the letters about “the life that might have been,” and how he almost proposed to her at one of the rare times they were together.
Jason Scorich is brilliant as Robert Lowell, portraying the man who in his poem “Skunk Hour,” dedicated to Bishop, said, “My mind’s not right … I myself am in hell.” Scorich’s portrayal peels away the layers of the charming and witty gentleman to get to the anguished, empty shell of himself, in and out of psychiatric hospitals throughout his adult life. Becoming more and more disheveled in both appearance and frame of mind, Scorich breaks the hearts of Elizabeth and the audience.
As Bishop, Julie Ahasay is exquisite in her moments of longing and loss, and also wonderfully sarcastic, providing much of the play’s humor. Ahasay captures Bishop’s giddiness when she receives a letter from Lowell, and her despondence when she does not hear from him. Ahasay gives full import to the essence of Bishop’s character in the line, “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.”
Director Anika Thompson elicits two magnificent performances that leap off the stage. Her sure-handed direction allows the quiet amalgam of letters and poetry to bring breath and life to an evening of literary discussion and self analysis.
Jeff Brown’s magnificent major set piece, a commanding bookshelf, is connected by a rolling ladder and filled with curiosities, books, photos and artwork, reflective of each character. Brown has had so many requests to build the bookcase for others that he included an ad in the program.
“Dear Elizabeth” is not just for English majors who can parse a poem with precision. It is for anyone who can appreciate all that is wondrous and enduring in how two souls can find their way to each other in friendship and love.
What: “Dear Elizabeth,” a play by Sarah Ruhl
Where: Teatro at Zeitgeist
When: Dec. 7-9, 13-15 at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 9 at 2 p.m.
Tickets: (218) 336-1417 or at www.zeitgeistarts.com General admission is $20. Seniors and students $16.