Mary Beth Fisher and Tom Nelis as poets and friends Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell in Dear Elizabeth at Berkeley Rep. Photo: kevinberne.com

Playwright Sarah Ruhl and director Les Waters, much-admired collaborators who created Eurydice, In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) and Three Sisters, return to Berkeley Rep with Dear Elizabeth,  a play based on the intimate 30-year correspondence between Pulitzer Prize-winning poets Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), played by Mary Beth Fisher, and Robert Lowell (1917-1977), acted by Tom Nelis.

Sarah Ruhl has chosen a concise selection of letters from the poets’ 900-plus pages of correspondence, which was published in 2008 as, Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Ruhl and Waters staged a two-character recitation of the selected correspondence. Because of constraints imposed by the poets’ estates, only the letters themselves could be used in the play, aside from the recitation of few wonderful poems and the placement of subtitles above the stage identifying the year and place in which the letters were written.

Sarah Ruhl and Les Waters return to Berkeley Rep with Dear Elizabeth starring Mary Beth Fisher as celebrated poet Elizabeth Bishop. Photo: kevinberne.com

Mary Beth Fisher and Tom Nelis give first-rate performances, despite the demanding task of remaining on a single set (resembling a shared study) for the entire 105-minute production (one intermission). Ms. Fisher plays Bishop a bit too primly at times. We never feel her deep despondency and loneliness until she has struggles with her partner, Lota, and writes One Art (“The art of losing isn’t hard to master…”)

To honor the estates’ constraints, a limited number of stage techniques are used to convey the writers’ interior and exterior lives. Mary Beth Fisher and Tom Nelis animate their readings with body language and, at times, exaggerated facial expressions. They are sometimes left with merely having to raise their voices to make an emotional point. As a result, they can seem to orate rather than to speak naturally.

Lowell yells, throws papers and falls to the floor to indicate that he’s out of control or needs hospitalization. When Bishop yearns to “start writing poetry all over again on another planet,” an obviously fake planet drops down and takes her to the stars. Lowell speaks of “ladders to the moon” and up pops an aluminum-clad moon. Drenching water pours onto the set while the two seek shelter, perhaps shelter from overwhelming feelings. These actions and stage effects seem a bit hackneyed in the context of the play’s serious emotional content.

The Bishop/Lowell letters, which begin shortly after the poets’ 1947 introduction by Randall Jarell and conclude with Lowell’s 1977 death from a heart attack, provide interesting glimpses into their meandering course of their dissimilar yet remarkable lives.

Lowell, from a prominent Boston family, had three turbulent marriages — to writer Jean Stafford, writer Elizabeth Hardwick and aristocratic British writer Caroline Blackwood. He suffered from manic depression and needed hospitalization more than once.

Bishop, like Lowell, had bouts of alcoholism. Essentially orphaned when her mother was institutionalized and her father died, she never seemed to find a permanent refuge. When traveling around South America in 1951, Bishop expected to spend two weeks in Brazil, but met architect Lota de Macedo Soares and lived with her for fifteen years. But for most of her life, Bishop was lonely and alone.

By the end of the second act, when the poets’ correspondence is running out of emotional and intellectual steam, Lowell dies and so the play abruptly ends. Although quite true to fact, having the actors recite a few more poems would have been welcome here.

Dear Elizabeth is playing at Berkeley Rep through July 7, 2013. For information and tickets, visit the Berkeley Rep online.

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Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...