‘Dear Elizabeth’ brings a storied poetic friendship to life at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

Matthew Reddin, Staff writer

Dear Reader,

Marvelous news! I have just returned from the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Dear Elizabeth — a play told through the letters of esteemed American poets and friends Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. And it is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

I knew but little of the play or its subjects before walking in, though I am well-acquainted with the work of Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, and I have been delighted by director Marie Kohler and actors Carrie Hitchcock and Norman Moses multiple times over. Watching Hitchcock and Moses traverse 30 years of the poets’ correspondence is a treat that left me craving to devour every scrap of their lives. 

Of course, the production is aided by rich source material. Playwright Sarah Ruhl takes every word of her play straight from her characters’ mouths — or pens, rather. You see, Bishop and Lowell began writing each other after their first meeting in 1947 and continued exchanging letters until Lowell’s death in 1977. They hid next to nothing from each other in their letters, and where narrative gaps exist, a small handful of pertinent details and datestamps are projected on the back wall of the Studio Theatre. Ruhl ingeniously intermingles the letters with occasional poems by the writers.

If this sounds dry to you, perhaps you are simply not as good a letter writer as Bishop or Lowell! Their words feel like a conversation you might be able to have on a day when you are sharp of mind and your conversation partner does not interrupt you (although one of the play’s best moments comes when Ruhl tweaks her formula and lets the poets’ letters overlap as they argue).

Since the beauty of this play is in the words that Bishop and Lowell have written, it is the duty of its director and actors to effectively translate all the glorious language from the page to the stage. And I think you will be impressed with how Kohler, Hitchcock and Moses have succeeded. Kohler has put her actors (who are married offstage, which makes for quite the onstage chemistry) on opposite ends of the stage, each at wooden desks that make me jealous to see. The actors roll back and forth in their chairs as they read their letters to one another, occasionally drawing closer for particularly personal letters. A shallow pool surrounds them — an appropriately lovely effect, for Bishop’s and Lowell’s poems often draw on water imagery. The pool also helps Hitchcock and Moses enact a weekend the two spent in Maine that had a great impact on both their poetry and their friendship.

When you go — and I hope to have convinced you that you must — do not forget to watch the actors’ responses to the letters as much as the letterwriter while he or she is reading. Hitchcock and Moses do a great deal with the smallest of gestures and reactions.

It’s funny. MCT’s theme for this season is “Looking for Love (in all the wrong places),” but I can think of no descriptor that less aptly describes this play. Alright, perhaps the first part is on the nose, but far be Bishop and Lowell’s relationship a “wrong place” to look for it.

To be fair: Lowell’s letters do reveal an unrequited affection for Bishop that he sometimes interprets as romantic. 

But just because her love for him does not fall into the same category does not make it any less passionate or less real. Dear Elizabeth is a love story — but a love story about two souls who find in each other the friend and confidant they didn’t know they needed.

I saw the play with my own very best friend, Reader, and I suggest you do the same, should you be more fortunate than Bishop and Lowell and have that friend close at hand. There is no better way to enjoy it.

All my best,

Matthew

On stage

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Dear Elizabeth runs through Oct. 18 at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. Tickets are $34 to $38, with $5 discounts for students and seniors. Visit milwaukeechambertheatre.com or call 414-291-7800 to order.