Words in Air, the collected correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, weighs in at just under three pounds (that’s the paperback edition). So the idea of turning 800-plus pages of correspondence into a two-hour play might seem a little daunting. But playwright Sarah Ruhl saw the potential of bringing these two celebrated poets together on a single stage. Dear Elizabeth, which the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre opened this weekend, is much more than a dual biography, or a glimpse into America’s mid-century poetry scene. It’s a celebration of the ties that language binds, a portrait of artists and a celebration of how words connect spirits and souls.
MCT’s production doesn’t shy away from the big questions here. Writing in the introduction to the play, Ruhl allows that productions might be as simple as two people and two chairs. But director Marie Kohler—along with designers Steve Barnes, Andrea Bouck and Noele Stollmack—sets Bishop and Lowell, and their words, against the elemental heavens. Their desks are surrounded by water and a field of stars, and Joe Cerqua’s gentle incidental music adds to the quiet solace of the space.
Bishop and Lowell’s correspondence isn’t compelling simply because they were two of America’s greatest poets. They connected across disparate temperaments as well as great distances. Lowell was a pioneer of “confessional” poetry, and led a tumultuous life striving for creative excellence and battling bipolar depression. Bishop had her share of emotional strife—battles with depression and alcohol—but her poetry is anything but confessional, instead rooted in observation and details of the world. “My passion for accuracy may strike you as old-maidish,” she writes Lowell, “but since we do float on an unknown sea I think we should examine the other floating things that come our way very carefully; who knows what might depend on it?”
The language and emotional zig-zags of Ruhl’s play are in good hands with Carrie Hitchcock and Norman Moses playing the poets. Their make the pair’s affection for each other palpable, and honor the particulars of their words in the proper spirit—lovingly but without grandstanding. Together, they take us through the 30 years of these poets’ lives with gentle transformations in appearance and temperament, but focus always on the words and the glowing friendship they surround.