BLUE HILL — The success of a play such as “Dear Elizabeth,” which opened at the Town Hall Theater last weekend, rests almost entirely on the shoulders of the two actors who play Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.
Based entirely on the 30-year written correspondence of these two poets, there is very little physical action, and aside from Randall Simons’ brief and formal appearances as a narrator, no other characters to carry the dramatic load during the course of the play.
In choosing this thoughtful, intelligent work by Sarah Ruhl, director Dindy Royster knew exactly who amongst New Surry Theatre’s talented ensemble of actors had the chops to take on these challenging, complicated roles.
She was not wrong. Cindy Robbins and Michael McFarland inhabit their characters so thoroughly, one suspects that after the show each evening they go home to write some scintillating poetry or letters.
This is not edge-of-your-seat fare, where the audience is kept on tenterhooks wondering what could possibly happen next. But it is thoroughly absorbing as we, in a sense, open the mail of these two complex and creative giants, and hear their private conversations about their work, their struggles with alcohol and mental illness and their intense but most often physically distant relationship.
“I seem to spend most of my life missing you,” Lowell writes Bishop several decades into their correspondence.
Like Lowell, who had the physical presence and charisma to fill Madison Square Garden for one of his readings, McFarland is a handsome, robust man, who seems thoroughly at home with the more assertive and aggressive aspects of Lowell’s nature. But Lowell also struggled with manic depression and McFarland manages to convey the fragility of his mental health, most poignantly when he shakily describes his return to “normalcy” after a manic episode, as being as graceless as “a cat climbing down a tree.”
For her part, Robbins takes Bishop from her first shy, reticent letters to Lowell — who in 1947 had just won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry — to a more self-confident critic of his work and at times his turbulent life.
Her own struggles with alcohol Bishop gently refers to from time to time in her correspondence, suggesting they both try abstinence for a while. But Ruhl has punctuated the problem, by showing Bishop pulling bottles of booze from a basket beneath her desk, to augment her glass of wine at dinner and, when Simons in a sort of Butler-esque turn in the play, takes her liquor away, she disastrously resorts to rubbing alcohol.
Despite such obstacles their letters to one another — or at least the ones Ruhl selected from the 400-plus they exchanged — are cogent, kind and thought-provoking.
Although the two poets do physically meet, once in a great while (often in Maine) it is in their letters where their love for each other shines the brightest. One comes to see that if Lowell had thrown caution to the wind and proposed to Bishop, what he describes as the “great might have been moment” of his life, and had she accepted, not only would these wonderful letters have stopped, but the friendship as well.
Remaining performances are at 7 p.m. on June 21 and 22. For tickets, go to www.newsurrytheatre.org or call 200-4720