WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell shared a passion for the perfect poem. But they also shared a largely unrequited passion for each other – both romantic and literary – portrayed with tenderness in Sarah Ruhl’s 2012 play “Dear Elizabeth.”
Northern Stage opened a production of “Dear Elizabeth” Saturday at the Barrette Center for the Arts that reveals the tumultuous lives and the enigmatic relationship of these two great American poets. It is being performed in repertory with “Oslo,” J.T. Rogers’ drama that retells the exciting story behind the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Ruhl fashioned “Dear Elizabeth” from some 400 letters between the two. Bishop and Lowell were devoted friends and deep admirers of each other’s work. In the beginning, Lowell nearly proposed but that was not to be, for just so many reasons.
In fact, Bishop was a lesbian whose longtime lover committed suicide, accentuating the poet’s feeling that she was the loneliest person in the world. Lowell too had his issues, including three marriages – two failed – alcoholism and bouts with manic depression resulting in long stays at mental hospitals.
Despite these tragedies, the two shared a joy in their work and in each other. What their relationship gave them was a sense of purpose and hope, that they weren’t alone. That is beautifully reflected in this play, and in Northern Stage’s fine production.
Directed by Carol Dunne, Northern Stage’s artistic director, Susan Haefner and David Mason (also featured actors in “Oslo”) play Bishop and Lowell. They will be replaced by Dunne and Thom Miller Oct. 18-28.
Bishop was a deeply conflicted woman, demanding too much of herself and always looking for connection, qualities that Haefner delivered sympathetically and dimensionally. Perhaps the most powerful moment of the evening was when Haefner read Bishop’s tribute poem after Lowell’s death. It was simple, quiet and beautifully heart wrenching.
Mason, despite a tendency to dramatize nearly every line, successfully conveyed Lowell’s inner struggle. As important, he and Haefner interacted with a naturalness that underscored their unusual relationship.
Northern Stage’s elaborate physical production almost overpowered the delicacy of the play, but not quite. Rebecca Lord-Surratt transformed the “Oslo” set for the play’s intimacy with some novel ideas, accentuated by Alek Deva’s excellent projections. Although occasionally distracting, Jane Shaw’s sound design added flavor.
Northern Stage’s “Dear Elizabeth” is a richly rewarding paean to two American artists, their struggles and their greatness.