BLUE HILL — Epistolary plays, such as “Dear Elizabeth” opening this Friday, June 7, at the Town Hall Theater, have their own challenges and their own rewards.
Because the action, dialogue and emotion are all revealed in letters — in this case a correspondence between two people — one can feel anchored to the stationary, as it were. Unless that is, the letter writers are so adept at expressing themselves on paper, and the actors so good at bringing their words to life, it lifts those sentences and phrases right off the paper, turning them into immediate dialogue rather than mere recitation, and making the exchange far more intimate and real.
Such is the case with American poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop whose letters to one another spanned more than three decades and helped each of them navigate some rough waters in their personal and literary lives.
While playwright Sarah Ruhl has mined the hundreds of letters these two poets exchanged for all the dialogue in “Dear Elizabeth,” she does from time to time let them escape the page and physically travel together to places, including Maine where they were members of a summer writer’s colony on the Blue Hill Peninsula. This allows us to experience some of the physical dynamics of their relationship, as well.
Playing these roles are two of New Surry Theatre’s most versatile character actors, Michael McFarland, and Cindy Robbins who, if a brief visit to a rehearsal last weekend is any measure, seem to have risen to this particular challenge, although McFarland — who has played such diverse roles as a mentally challenged farm hand and an alcoholic English professor— admits to having something of a struggle with this one.
Part of the problem, perhaps, was that he did too much homework; reading Lowell’s poems and listening to recordings of the poet reading his own works.
“What I initially took away was the dark side of his nature,” McFarland says, “and since he was an actual person and there were recordings of his voice, I felt I should also sound like him, which a disaster.”
Once Director Dindy Royster — who actually met Lowell, at a Thanksgiving dinner, in 1973 — freed him from attempting Lowell’s Boston Brahmin drawl, McFarland says he felt freed to act the role, rather than impersonate the man, and in the process found the poets’ lighter, humorous nature, which was the flip side of Lowell’s bi-polar personality. McFarland found the man who was such an engaging presence at his peak, whose poetry readings could fill Madison Square Garden.
For Robbins, was it difficult to summon the emotional backing for Bishop’s dialogue, since the poet was a less gregarious character than Lowell and her language and sentiments were so controlled in her carefully crafted letters?
Robbins refutes that notion.
“There’s just as much emotion in these letters as in any other play,” she insists. “It’s just a different dynamic.
“I believe it’s because she was able to think through her responses in a way we can’t when we’re present in the conversation, that their friendship survived so long.”
Another directorial goldmine for the two actors has been author Megan Marshall, the writer of “A Miracle for Breakfast” Bishop’s biography, who visited several rehearsals and was able to help with certain character nuances. Marshall also be on hand for a Q&A with the audience for the June 16th performance.
Since Ruhl was so stringent at using only the poet’s own words for her dialogue it was necessary to include a narrator to tie certain scenes together in time and place when they weren’t described in the letters.
Randall Simmons, another fine member of the NST acting ensemble, serves this function with his usual aplomb.
“Dear Elizabeth, will be performed, at 7 p.m. June 7-8, June 14-15 and June 21-22 and at 3 p.m. on June 16.
To reserve seats, call 200-4720 and visit newsurrytheatre.org.