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Sarah Ruhl and a Pair of Timeless Poets

Date: Nov 12, 2015

The playwright takes on the friendship of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell


When Women's Project producing artistic director Lisa McNulty got word that her theatre might be moving to a new home, she called up her old friend Sarah Ruhl, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-nominated playwright. "I've known Sarah since she was an undergrad. We've been friends and collaborators for a long time," says McNulty, who helped produce Ruhl's Melancholy Play and was involved in commissioning her breakthrough show, The Clean House.

As the two walked around the McGinn/Cazale Theatre, which is now where Women's Project resides, they talked about another pair of old friends, the 20th century poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. "We thought, 'Wouldn't it be great to do a play that celebrates two of our century's finest poets?'" McNulty recalls. "Wouldn't that be an amazing way to inaugurate the new space dedicated to work by women?" (Though she adds that Bishop hated being called a "female poet.")

They were referring, of course, to Ruhl's play Dear Elizabeth, an epistolary drama taken from Bishop and Lowell's letters. Though it premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2012, the show had never been seen in New York City. Now Women's Project is bringing it to local audiences for the first time, presenting it at the McGinn/Cazale through December 5.

However, literary friendships and correspondences weren't the only things that interested McNulty and Ruhl. Unlike earlier iterations of the show, which cast only two actors for the entire run, they decided to invite a variety of performers to play Bishop and Lowell in rotation. "It was very intentional to have Sarah bless this new space alongside a rotating cast of brilliant actors," McNulty says.

And Ruhl, whose work is known for its sprightly imagination, is arguably an ideal choice to transform a collection of letters into a piece of theatre. "There's no world in which a play that Sarah Ruhl writes isn't theatrical," McNulty says, adding that Dear Elizabeth ultimately isn't about two artists in conversation with each other, but three. "It's also Ruhl in conversation with Bishop and Lowell."


Dramatizing the voice of the playwright is actor Polly Noonan, who will play the role of the "stage manager" for the entirety of the run. While all of the text between Bishop and Lowell is culled from their letters, Ruhl's voice shines in the stage directions and the setting of scenes. The Women's Project production is the first to add this third actor, and it speaks to how the company sees the play."For us the conundrum was, 'How do you make this play feel theatrical while also focusing on the words these poets used to communicate?'" McNulty says. "We expose the mechanics, and we set the stage for this literally and figuratively being a theatrical experience."

Asked about the impact of a constantly changing cast list, McNulty says, "Bishop and Lowell were two very specific people, but their experience is universal. And it's amazing how the different pairs of actors bring different things to the text." Peter Scolari, for instance, who is cast alongside fellow Girls co-star Becky Ann Baker, was a literature major in college. According to McNulty, "that passion for contemporary poetry comes through."

Meanwhile, she adds, with John Douglas Thompson and J. Smith-Cameron, "there's a really beautiful delicacy in their approach to the poetry. Kathleen Chalfant and Harris Yulin, on the other hand, have a kind of tartness and ease with the language, and there's something powerful about having older actors in these roles."

The rotating roster, which also features David Aaron Baker, Rinde Eckert, Cherry Jones, Mia Katigbak, and Ellen McLaughlin, provides a continual freshness to the show. "Too often we get used to a show being 'done' and 'frozen,'" McNulty says. "This way we're open. We're still making discoveries, and it feels like a living organism."


TDF Members: At press time, discounted tickets were available for Dear Elizabeth. Click here to see all our discounted shows.

Playwright, performer, and journalist Eliza Bent is a regular contributor to TDF Stages. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo: Becky Ann Baker and Peter Scolari.