As the anxiety about midterms sets in, you can find solace in the poetic reminder from Tuesday Night Cafe (TNC) Theatre’s Dear Elizabeth that all great people are plagued with uncertainty. Directed by Marina Miller, Dear Elizabeth dramatizes the lives of famous American poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, based on the “over 300 pages of letters” they wrote to each other. The play examines the turbulent and emotional relationship between the two literary greats, who corresponded from 1947 until Robert’s death in 1977. Peppered with recitations of Elizabeth’s and Robert’s poems, the play draws you into the isolated world of these two characters.
Fittingly, the play itself is ultimately poetic. It’s a story of the ‘might have been’ moments in the lives of two people who never realizef their loving relationship. Always apart and just briefly together, Dear Elizabeth masterfully tells a a story of falling in love without being allowed the chance to act upon it.
But this play will resound with students beyond its depiction of unfulfilled adoration. Despite their literary fame, Robert and Elizabeth were troubled souls, suffering from depression and crippling loneliness. Throughout the play, they constantly doubt themselves and their choices. This lack of confidence is perfectly encompassed in Robert’s quip about his age: “31 and nothing done.” His manic depression keeps him in constant flux between hopeful optimism and the crushing anxiety of his solitude, while Elizabeth’s depression and isolation bring her to tell Robert, “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.” This sense of loneliness and a constant anxiety about wasted potentials will likely be quite familiar to the student audience.
Julia Borsellino portrays Elizabeth beautifully and unguardedly. In the scenes that show Robert writing letters to Elizabeth, her facial expressions explain the depths of her feelings more than words ever could: the look of heartbreak when Robert writes her about meeting Elizabeth Hardwick, his future wife; her expression of despair when Robert writes her a beautiful letter about their love that “might have been.” It is painful to watch the fear in her eyes when she turns to see that her lover, Lota, has committed suicide. Borsellino adds new depth to the play with her expressive acting, silently communicating sentiments that bring new dimensions to Elizabeth’s character.
“When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.”
As Robert, Max Katz also portrays the psychologically struggling poet with a quiet finesse. Katz does not portray Lowell’s bipolar disorder in an unrealistic, over-the-top manner, but instead approaches the illness with introversion and discomfiture that make his character all the more believable. Rather than using swings of rage to happiness, Katz illustrates Robert’s shifts in personality with a reserved attitude, his happiness always guarded and his sadness always isolating. This makes the climactic scene where Elizabeth and Robert fight over the ethics of his confessional poetry all the more poignant, as the rage that finally breaks out of Robert’s resigned disposition adds an unexpected aspect to the struggling character.
Katz and Borsellino have an undeniably entrancing chemistry. Despite their separation on either side of the stage, broken only in brief moments of reunion, the two actors rise to the task of portraying a deep emotional connection despite the physical distance between them. The longing looks cast across the set, and the tension of being so close onstage but so far in reality, serve to heighten the nostalgic feel of the production.
This careful attention to how the actors interact with the space points to Miller’s thoughtful direction. Divided in half, the set personifies the dichotomy that resounds throughout the play and visually echoes the theme of isolation. Each character has their half of the stage to which they are mostly confined. Elizabeth’s half is bright, airy, and feminine, while Robert’s half is decorated with dark oak and dusty books.
The set constantly reminds us of the distance between the two characters, their letters travelling across continents and oceans; this makes their moments of face-to-face interaction feel even more intimate, like physical representations of the intimacy in their letters. In the brief scenes when Elizabeth and Robert are united, the actors are silent, playing out their time together in a quiet, dreamy montage. Behind them, a screen displays typewriter font that types out their thoughts. This staging makes the letters into the true core of the interactions between Elizabeth and Robert, cleverly crafting their distance as more intimate than their moments together.
Paradoxically, it is with such emphasis on distance that TNC Theatre’s Dear Elizabeth creates an engaging relationship between Elizabeth, Robert, and the spectators. Gripping the audience with the wishful intimacy of every moment, the play provides a story to warm our hearts on these cold winter evenings.
Dear Elizabeth plays from February 18 to 21 at 8 p.m. at TNC. Tickets are $6 for students and $10 for adults