AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Les Waters
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Roda Theatre
2015 Addison St., Berkeley, CA / (510) 647-2949

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop were major 20th century American poets whose 30-year professional and personal friendship was chronicled by extensive correspondence between the two. Playwright Sarah Ruhl skillfully encapsulates this friendship in her 2012 "Dear Elizabeth," presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre in its West Coast premiere.

The friendship started in 1947 and continued until Lowell's death in 1977. During that time, the two lived quite different lives, but the respect and affection they had for each other surmounted all that.

Bishop, played by Mary Beth Fisher, lived with a succession of female lovers in Florida, Brazil and elsewhere for a number of years while struggling with alcoholism. Lowell, played by Tom Nelis, spent most of his life in the Eastern United States, was married three times and was manic-depressive, resulting in several hospitalizations. They shared many details of their lives in their letters, and they gave each other valuable feedback on their poems.

Although the idea of back-and-forth letters might sound dramatically dull, Ruhl and director Les Waters make "Dear Elizabeth" lively and engaging. The two actors personalify their characters' keen intelligence and wit as well as their emotional ups and downs. It's an altogether captivating production.

The only misstep comes at the end of Act 1, when a torrent of water pours onto the stage. While an earlier downpour quickly drained, this one didn't, leading to the distraction of the actors slogging through 2 or 3 inches of water before exiting. Then the stage crew had to spend the 15-minute intermission mopping the stage and drying every inch of the floor, furniture and walls.

Otherwise, it's a beautifully conceived and executed play, aided by Annie Smart's set, Maria Hooper's costumes, Russell Champa's lighting and Bray Poor's sound. Bray co-wrote the music with Jonathan Bell.

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