Arts & Events

New: “Dear Elizabeth” at Berkeley Rep charms with lovely words, warmth, and beautiful pictures

by John A. McMullen II
Saturday June 08, 2013 - 11:48:00 AM
Mary Beth Fisher and Tom Nelis as Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell
Mary Beth Fisher and Tom Nelis as Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

I like epistolary plays where the letters sent between two people over decades are fashioned into a dramatic piece. The only trouble is such plays sometimes remind me of radio drama on NPR. But “Dear Elizabeth,” by Sarah Ruhl now at the Berkeley Rep, is saved from that trap by some of the best stagecraft I’ve seen this year, inspired staging, and two adept and exactingly cast professionals doing the acting. 

It’s about Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell who were both Poet Laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners. Playwright Sarah Ruhl (probably best known for “The Vibrator Play”) has taken their letters from the late ‘40’s through the 70’s and fashioned a drama about their great friendship—its wit and warmth preserved in their missives to one another. Sometimes confessional, often cheering the others poems—but always with a little criticism, and nearly always with a genuine warmth, affection, and admiration, they reveal the lives of these complicated literary personalities. 

Before I went I Wiki-ed them both and took down my Norton’s Anthology of Poetry and read their major poems. That information vastly enhanced my enjoyment of the play. (You can read their poetry online at .) 

Russell Champa’s lighting is more than an aid to the play, it is practically a character which supports them at every turn by reflecting time and mood and painting pictures even lovelier than the New England they both write about. Lighting changes From black, green, and lavender skies, to honeyed late afternoons and bleak, down-lit four a.m.’s, help their words and our imagination while pleasing the eye. Annie Smart’s scene design gives them room to move and for Lowell to cavort, and there is a spectacular effect which I shall not reveal but which changes the ions in the theater. 

Les Waters directs, and gives them just enough movement and business to keep it interesting while revealing these literary giant’s humanity and frailty and providing lots of humor.  

Ruhl’s play does not shy away from either the mental illness from which Lowell suffered or the alcoholism of Bishop, but delicately couches her long-time affair with Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares in general terms, as it does her proclivity for the same sex.  

Mary Beth Fisher* and Tom Nelis* portray the renown poets which brings foreign phrases like pas de deux and tour de force to mind. Both bear very credible likenesses to photos and preserved videos of them. Nelis--lanky, rumpled and bespectacled—is the very image of Lowell who was the scion of a Boston Brahmin family dating back to the Mayflower. Fisher has the same elegantly elongated nose as Bishop, and, to my ear, Fisher’s voice has the same inflections and timbre as the poet.  

You can hear Bishop’s own voice reading “The Fish” at and Lowell himself reading “For the Union Dead” at

For those who are interested in more detail, a performance of a strict reading of their letters in concert at the 92nd Street YMHA in NYC is accessible at 

Ironically, Elizabeth Bishop wrote in her first letter to Robert Lowell, dated May 12, 1947, "I was supposed to read, too, up at the YMHA Saturday evening but couldn't make it, and I hope my absence was a help rather than a hindrance." 

I came away from the play happy and fulfilled and it made for a pleasant and nearly perfect Sunday. If you love modern poetry and biography, do not hesitate.  

It plays through July 7th at the Rep Roda Theatre on Addison off of Shattuck in Berkeley. 

“Dear Elizabeth” by Sarah Ruhl 

Directed by Les Waters 

With: Mary Beth Fisher* and Tom Nelis* 

Annie Smart, Scenic Design 

Maria Hooper, Costume Design 

Russell Champa, Lighting Design 

Bray Poor, Original Music / Sound Design 

Jonathan Bell, Original Music 

(*Member, Actors’ Equity Association)