There was a line late in the second act of Dear Elizabeth, where Elizabeth Bishop, played by Cherry Jones, writes in a letter to Robert Lowell, by way of expressing concern over his recent health troubles, that she is praying for him: “Praying,” she then explains, “meaning ‘the intensity of hoping.’ ”
Well. WELL. I printed that line on the inside of my eyelids, pressed it with one finger into the palm of my left hand, sketched it over and over in my head while I tried to keep up with the play. When the curtain fell (there was no curtain), I pulled my ratty wrinkled notebook out of my bag to scribble it down on paper, and I still may not have it right. It’s close, though. The intensity of hoping.
The Women’s Project Theater is in residence at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre on Broadway at 76th Street. It’s a wee, comfortable space on the fourth floor of a nondescript building whose first floor looks mostly abandoned. There were signs outside but still, I was confused. The box office inside was boarded up. Could this be right? Ever the lemming, I followed a couple of Upper West Side Types onto an elevator—Upper West Side Types being sure of their instincts and secure in their place in the world—along with David Aaron Baker, who played Robert Lowell. There’s something magical in this, something so deliciously small-world and New York-y about an actor strolling in off the street and taking the lift right up to the theater along with the audience. (When SarahB and I saw Flyovers at a similar spot on a similar street a couple of years ago, we squeezed past Richard Kind and Michele Pawk on our way out the door approximately ninety seconds after watching them take their bows.)
This play, though: Dear Elizabeth, created by Sarah Ruhl and drawn from decades of correspondence between Bishop and Lowell—nothing but two actors sitting at desks placed side by side, a small gulf between them as they read aloud their own letters and poems to each other, meeting occasionally at retreats or conferences or vacation homes, shaking hands, hugging, dancing, as their words fly back and forth. It isn’t a sweet story, there’s alcoholism and madness, divorce and suicide, professional jealousies and personal slights. Long absences, death. But it’s the portrait of a friendship as the best possible love, the most abiding romance. At the end, an unseen stage manager offers a spoken coda while the actors stand silently together, leaning against one desk and holding hands—each poet cherishing the simple fact that the other exists in the world—as a cascade of hundreds of letters falls gently onto the stage from above. And then there was me, poor me, crying all the way home.