Playwright Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth gives us a lifelong romance of over eight hundred letters exchanged between Robert (Cal) Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, who through their poetry and letter writing create the most intriguing platonic (for the most part) love relationship that I have ever read.
The play, staged by Tuesday Night Café Theatre (student run and associated with McGill’s Department of English), is competently directed by Marina Miller, who blends romantic lyricism with elements of human sharing, loneliness, some longing and finally the nature of loss. This two-protagonist narrative keeps you engaged, as you move back and forth between the letter writing of the two characters. There is a prolonged, slow build up, which culminates when Elizabeth confronts Cal on including personal letters he wrote to an ex-wife in one of his new books. The moment epitomizes the frustration that unfulfilled, pent up desires result in, after decades of sharing only literary experiences by the two of them.
The two protagonists Cal and Elizabeth start writing to each other after a chance meeting in 1932. This sets into motion a lifelong sharing through the written word, well into the later years of their lives, only to end with Cal’s death by a heart attack as he was en-route to meet an ex-wife. They create an intriguing relationship, which is a solid friendship at its core, but has multitude doses of hesitation, honesty, sporadic jealousy, longing, reaching out in moments of desperation and pondering over a thought of what would have been? This last emotion, as Cal expresses clearly in one of his letters, plays out when he confesses to toying with the idea of asking Elizabeth to marry him. Through the play, he ends up marrying three other women, but never her.
They follow each other through ups and downs of their writing careers, writer’s blocks, living on different continents and just dealing with the pangs that come with living. In all this, it’s writing to each other that is their constant. While the affection and sharing only evolves to continued depth, it’s the desire to constantly share themselves with each other that makes for a compelling play. Cal has his marriages, a daughter with his second wife and a possible third child with his third. He also suffers from bi-polar disorder, while Elizabeth for her part struggles with alcoholism and prolonged loneliness.
The actors hold their own adeptly. Max Katz plays Robert almost flawlessly, deeply reverberating mannerisms and eccentricities, as the character evolves on stage. Julia Borsellino plays Elizabeth, while fumbling a few times with her lines, she evolves from a flat performance in the first half to a more engaged one in the second, giving her more credibility to match Katz’s.
The play relives the time when waiting for someone to write to you was a highlight and perhaps a lifeline for some people. Dear Elizabeth is a proficient effort on the part of the TNC and lends voice to our generation who substitute a few taps on an electronic keypad to the smell of ink and paper and hope that it can last a lifetime. While Cal and Elizabeth’s letters will, my last text to a friend will be lost in the electronic universe of messaging.
Dear Elizabeth plays tonight at Moyse Hall at McGill University at 8 p.m. $10/6.