DORSET >> In college, I took an advanced elective on 20th century American literature. Poets Robert Lowell (1917-1977) and Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) figured prominently in the readings; both giants of modern American verse had recently passed away, bringing even more attention to their life opus.
As an angst-filled 20-year old struggling to find his place in the world, their poems and life stories spoke to me. What I recall best from those works was the totally relatable feeling of physical isolation, and emotional desolation.
Some three decades later, all of this came full circle at the opening of Dorset Theatre Festival's "Dear Elizabeth," by Sarah Ruhl, and directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt. The play chronicles the close friendship through a lifelong written correspondence between Lowell and Bishop.
Ms. Ruhl's work is a brilliant synthesis with her own stamp included, based on the latest edition of the two poets' letters, "Words in Air," as well as several of their poems.
But while the story spans three decades and its exemplars are Lowell, played by Chris Henry Coffey, and Bishop, portrayed by Andrea Syglowski, this play is really about you, me, and the rest of us.
And that's really why "Dear Elizabeth" is a must-see production.
Coffey was an excellent Lowell. It was important in this play to capture the full scope of Lowell's lifelong struggle as a manic depressive. Coffey rode that rollercoaster to its zeniths and nadirs, making us painfully aware not only of the poet's torment, but of how easily its pain translates to challenges in the life of anyone deemed sane and stable.
Coffey also grasped the half disheveled mannerisms for which Lowell was famous. In all, his fine acting was beyond convincing, especially emotionally.
For her part, Syglowksi delivered the goods as Bishop, and it must be said her casting was uncanny. Aided by excellent make-up artistry, Syglowski was a doppelganger for the genuine item. She was also superior in her depiction of an aging and ailing Bishop, so much so that one couldn't help but feel the need to jump up on stage to help.
And if there was someone in the house who wasn't at the very least stirred by Syglowski's rendering of the poem "North Haven," Bishop's tribute to Lowell on his death, then pulses should be checked.
The show was crisp, and ran about 105 minutes, with one 10 minute intermission.
Lights by Grant W.S. Yeager excelled in their effects. Amy Altadonna's sound accentuated a number of key emotive moments, and John McDermott's costumes helped to bring home the era, as well as the far-flung coast of Maine: Bishop's outfitting was sheer brilliance. Stage manager Geoff Boronda had the show's moving pieces taught and well-wired.
Set design and video projection backdrops by McDermott and Kevin Ramser respectively were surreal, sublime and utilitarian, all in one. The video projection technology went one step farther than last year's "Outside Mullingar," and gave cues as to character thoughts and timeline progress in a most clever, flashing manner.
There were a few preview night line hesitations, and a premature flash of one video spot, but they were minor and should easily be ironed out. In all, Ms. Campbell-Holt got the very best from both cast and crew.
But let's return to our earlier literary conversation. You don't have to be a snob or learned to love this play, or more importantly, to feel it. Let's face it: these days, poetry is a hard sell. Contemporary readers, even if creative, often want answers at their fingertips with Digital Age alacrity. So be it.
"Dear Elizabeth" bucks that trend in showing us the value of the written word before text messages and video chats. In fact, the themes therein are so visceral that this is a play some people may want to see twice – there is so much of value there.
Perhaps not ironically then, what we find in Dorset's production is what should be expected in the correspondence of two tortured souls who sought solace in their verse, and each other.
It's reminiscent of their contemporary bard, E.E. Cummings, who once wrote this assessment of the craft: "Such was a poet and shall be and is/-who'll solve the depths of horror to defend/ a sunbeam's architecture with his life:/ and carve immortal jungles of despair/ to hold a mountain's heartbeat in his hand."
In the heart, everyone is a poet. Go see this play, hold out your hand, and wait to feel the pulse.
"Dear Elizabeth" runs through July 23 at Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Rd., in Dorset. For tickets and information call 802-867-2223 or visit dorsettheartrefestival.org
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA).