‘Dear Elizabeth’: letter-writing becomes riveting drama

A play about the correspondence between two acclaimed poets — who never had a romantic or sexual relationship — might sound like a very dry night at the theater.

But in the hands of the brilliant playwright Sarah Ruhl and director Les Waters, “Dear Elizabeth” at Yale Rep proves to be a moving, funny and highly theatrical experience.

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell were dear friends, who also became acute editors and critics of each other’s work, so the letters that are dramatized in the play are a fascinating mix of the personal and the professional.

In the early scenes, we share their striving for acceptance and acclaim in their younger years, their deep respect for each other’s work, and the lit/academic career connections that they are trying to make.

There is a suggestion in the first part of the play that Robert thought about marrying his dear friend, but Elizabeth eventually embraced her lesbianism and had a long-term relationship with a woman.

Robert went through a series of marriages and affairs that are referred to in the correspondence but never dominate what might be termed the meeting of two minds.

Ruhl’s deft editing and Waters’ staging combine to make “Dear Elizabeth” a real play rather than a reading on the order of A.R. Gurney’s fictional “Love Letters” or Jerome Kilty’s “Dear Liar” (about the relationship between George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell).

Working with scenic designer Adam Rigg and lighting designer Russell H. Champa, Waters makes the play as beautiful and as engaging to look at as it is to listen to.

Mention must also be made of the subtle original music by Bray Poor and Jonathan Bell, as well as the sound design of Bray Poor and the projections by Hannah Wasileski.

Jefferson Mays (who won a Tony for his tour de force performance in “I Am My Own Wife”) and Chicago stage star Mary Beth Fisher make Lowell and Bishop come fully alive despite working within the restriction of only having fragments of letters to speak.

There is something truly magical about the way these performers, working Ruhl and Waters, make us feel that we are watching the evolution of two artists’ lives and work in a series of fully satisfying dramatic scenes.

(“Dear Elizabeth” is running through Dec. 22 at Yale Reopertory Theatre. For more information, visit www.yalerep.org)

Joe Meyers