Geneva Anderson digs into art

Review: Berkeley Rep’s ‘Dear Elizabeth”—two poets bonded through letters

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“More than kisses,” wrote the great English poet, John Donne, “letters mingle souls.”   And if ever two souls were mingled, it would be those of acclaimed American 20th century poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell  who exchanged letters for three decades.   While the two never had a romantic or sexual relationship, they had a vibrant long-distance friendship conducted largely via snail mail that was every bit as entangled as a marriage.  From 1947 until Lowell’s death in 1977, they exchanged over 400 letters across oceans and continents, critically reflecting on each other’s poems, literature, and tracking the ups and downs of their careers—they both won Pulitzers—and relationships— his three marriages and her lesbian partnerships.  Dear Elizabeth  at Berkeley Repertory Theatre  is a play based entirely on these exquisite letters and it had its West Coast premiere at the Rhoda Theatre last Wednesday.

Dear Elizabeth is the latest collaboration between Brooklyn-based playwright Sarah Ruhl and artistic director Les Waters, the award-winning creators of Eurydice, Three Sisters, and In the Next Room (or the vibrator play).  Mary Beth Fisher is Elizabeth Bishop and Tom Nelis is Robert Lowell.  Both actors have their debut at Berkley Rep.  Fisher also played Elizabeth Bishop when the play had its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre last December.  This lovely and well-crafted production consists entirely of the two talented actors reading letters aloud, with no dialogue in-between.  The letters themselves incisive snapshots of the lives they led, written in a conversational style which makes them easy to listen to.   It would not be surprising to learn they are filled with tidbits that never made their way into their poems.  Annie Smart’s set is little more than a shared literary study which changes slightly as they each change bases over the years.  It all works!  Ruhl has done such masterful job of selecting letters and passages, that their sharp intellects and quixotic artistic personalities take root and blossom, albeit quietly, as a conversation on stage.  Dear Elizabeth runs through July 7, 2013.

Sarah Ruhl and Les Waters return to Berkeley Rep with Dear Elizabeth, starring Mary Beth Fisher (left) and Tom Nelis as esteemed poets and lifelong friends Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.  Photo courtesy of

Sarah Ruhl and Les Waters return to Berkeley Rep with Dear Elizabeth, starring Mary Beth Fisher (left) and Tom Nelis as esteemed poets and lifelong friends Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Photo courtesy of

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell met each other in New York in 1947, through the poet and critic Randall Jarrell.  Lowell had just published his second book of poems, Lord Weary’s Castle, and Bishop her first, North & South.  Bishop later wrote that she “loved him at first sight.”  Lord Weary’s Castle won the Pulitzer Prize, and Lowell was named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.  He frequently discussed his work with other poets, but Bishop did not. Their meeting was the first time she had discussed the nuts and bolts of her work with another poet and it was inspiring.  Something clicked in both of them; she wrote him in 1947 and he replied from Yaddo, Saratoga Springs, New York and she wrote back.   They became close and then closer still, at first admiring and critiquing each other’s work and then sharing more and more news of their personal lives.

While they both proposed to meet face to face, they rarely did, and instead conducted their treasured relationship from the safety of their writing desks where they seemed to take solace in just thinking of each other.  Of course, there were intrusions—Lowell’s various girlfriends, his three wives and children, his battles with booze and his episodes of manic depression which, more than once, led to his institutionalization.   All his “news” was packed into letters which at times seemed to floor and worry Bishop who doted on him but always maintained a brutally honesty about his work. Bishop, a lesbian, was more of a rolling stone, and couldn’t seem to stay long in one place until she met Brazilian aristocrat Lotta de Macedo Soares in Brazil and settled into a 12 year relationship that ended with Lotta’s suicide.

Over the years, missing each other became a central complaint, especially for the more volatile Lowell who wrote, “We seem attached to each other by some stiff piece of wire, so that each time one moves, the other moves in another direction.”

Fisher and Nelis, who spend a great deal of the play seated side by side at a large desk, have a chemistry that works, conveying both warmth and respect.  Fisher, who looks a bit school-marmish, is particularly adept at capturing the shyness, reserve and loneliness that plagued Bishop.  After Lotta’s suicide, there were episodes of alcohol abuse so severe that Bishop would fall and injure herself.  Fisher also conveys Bishop’s wry sense of humor.  Nelis captures the grandiose and dark aspects of Lowell, who spirals in and out of functionality but uses all his experiences as literary compost…he turns the most elegant lines!   You’ll hear a few of these but the play mainly sticks to excerpts of their letters.  The correspondence between Bishop and Lowell on which the play is based, Words in Air, was published in 2008.

Annie Smart’s sets combine with Russell Champa’s lush lighting to create magical moments of visual poetry.

The biggest take-away is a renewed appreciation for these two gifted poets and the complexity and beauty of their bond.  Did they flirt with the idea of taking it further, of calling it “love”?  In 1957, after one of their few visits crashed and burned, he penned that asking her to marry him was the biggest might have been of his life. Late in his life, Lowell wrote “I seem to spend my life missing you.”   Thankfully, for our sake, Bishop ignored him.  How many great letters have you written your spouse once you settled into a relationship?

Sarah Ruhl and Les Waters return to Berkeley Rep with Dear Elizabeth, starring Mary Beth Fisher (left) and Tom Nelis as esteemed poets and lifelong friends Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.  Photo courtesy of

Sarah Ruhl and Les Waters return to Berkeley Rep with Dear Elizabeth, starring Mary Beth Fisher (left) and Tom Nelis as esteemed poets and lifelong friends Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Photo courtesy of

Run-time is 1 hour and 45 minutes with one 15 minute intermission

Creative Team:  Written by Sarah Ruhl.  Directed by Les Waters

Designed by Annie Smart (sets), Maria Hooper (costumes), Russell Champa (lighting), Bray Poor (sound), and Hannah Wasileski (projections)

Starring: Mary Beth Fisher and Tom Nelis

Special Events:

Tastings: Sunday 7/7 @ 6:00 PM (Semifreddi’s)

Post-show discussions: Thursday 6/13, Tuesday 6/18, and Friday 6/28 @ 8:00 PM

Docents: talks on Tuesdays and Thursdays @ 7:00 PM; discussions after all matinees

Details: Dear Elizabeth runs through July 7, 2013 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley. Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre is located at 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley (near the intersection of Addison and Shattuck Avenue), Berkeley, CA 94704.  Performances:  Tuesday-Sunday, with additional weekend matinee performances.  Tickets: $29 -$77. Call box office at 510-647-2949 or purchase online at

Parking: paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre. The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $3 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM or all day on Saturday or Sunday when your garage-issued parking ticket is validated in the theatre lobby.

June 3, 2013 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

From stage to screen, once you’ve seen “Incendies,” the film, A.C.T.’s staged version, “Scorched,” falls Flat

Twin siblings Janine (A.C.T. core acting company member Annie Purcell) and Simon (Babak Tafti) attend the reading of their estranged mother's will, in the West Coast premiere of Wajdi Mouawad's “Scorched,” at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, March 11, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

One of my best friends is a librarian and I often hear about how a book is almost always much better, richer, than a movie adaptation.  When a play is adapted into a movie, as is common these days, the play isn’t always better.   A.C.T.’s production of Wajdi Mouawad’s play Scorched, which opened on February 22, 2012, is infinitely less moving than French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies, the film adaptation.  The gut-wrenching drama coheres and resonates profoundly on screen, while A.C.T.’s stage version, directed by Carey Perloff, fails to mine the intense and shifting emotions at the heart of this haunting story.  A.C.T.’s production suffers from poor casting, lackluster acting and other confusions, some of which might be worked through in subsequent performances. Thematically, the material is golden, a Greek tragedy for our time: you can’t choose your family and, try as you may, you can’t escape family either.

In Scorched, we meet twenty-something twins Janine (Annie Purcell) and Simon Marwan (Babak Tafti) in present-day Montreal, as they are being read the will of their late mother by notary Alphonse Lebel (David Strathairn ) who was also her employer near the time of her death and friend.  He hands them letters addressed to a father they were told was dead and a brother they didn’t know existed, letters that their mother stipulated must be delivered before she can be given a proper burial. “Childhood is like a knife stuck in the throat that cannot be easily removed,” the notary says.

And so begins the unraveling of our assumptions about what we think we know about childhood, happiness, and the security of a family’s love.  As the twins gradually discover the tortured history of their mother and of their own origins, that bizarre adage starts to resonate.  Childhood isn’t simply being young; it’s also the experience of being someone’s child.  For Janine and Simon, being the children of Nawal Marwan has been painful and her death is equally complex, leaving them with a world of questions.  They’re sent off on an epic quest — first Jeanne, and later a far more reluctant Simon — to their mother’s homeland.  The balance of the story unfolds in this barren and unnamed Middle Eastern land which has a history of Christan-Muslim violence much like that of Mouawad’s homeland, Lebanon, in the 1970s.

In fulfillment of her estranged mother's final wishes, Canadian notary Alphonse Lebel (David Strathairn) gives Janine (A.C.T. core acting company member Annie Purcell) a jacket with the mysterious number 72 embroidered on the back, in the West Coast premiere of Wajdi Mouawad's “Scorched,” at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, March 11, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

The story itself is a rich melding of drama, mystery, and war-time epic.   As the twins slowly unearth how perversely their family history is tied to the region’s conflicts and violence, the narrative alternates between their present day investigation and their mother’s journeys and trials decades earlier.

Featured actor David Strathairn, as Alphonse Lebel, the notary entrusted with settling Nawal Marwan’s estate with the twins, gives such an affecting performance that he steals the dramatic thunder from Nawal Marwan’s tragic story and the twins’ evolving perspectives. The Emmy-award winning Strathairn, who rambles, spouts malapropisms right and left, and tries out several accents, comes off  much like  detective Monk, the endearing comedic TV detective played by Tony Shalhoub.  Is he meant to evoke a holy fool who guides the twins to the truth?   Who knows—but the alchemy feels very off given the weak performances of the other major characters and the serious emotional tenor of the play.  

It is really the women who should be the dramatic focus.  Nawal’s story at its core, despite its almost unbelievable twists, is representative of the universal struggle of women in war torn, repressive and male-dominated societies everywhere.  The early love scenes between Marjan Neshat, Nawal from ages 14 through 40, and Nick Gabriel as her lover Wahab (a Muslim refugee), which should really hook us, are devoid of passion.  As we see Nawal mature, we understand through dialogue, not her acting, how at odds she is with the perverse context into which she’s been inserted.  Jacqueline Antaramian gives a very affecting performance as Nawal at 60 and earlier in the play as Nawal’s mother.

L to R: Canadian notary Alphonse Lebel (David Strathairn) gives a mysterious notebook and letter to Simon (Babak Tafti) in fulfillment of Simon's estranged mother's final wishes in the West Coast premiere of Wajdi Mouawad's “Scorched,” at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, March 11, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Challenging in its own right, play is further confused by A.C.T.’s casting choices—there are several actors who are playing many characters and a couple of characters that are being played by more than one actor and a couple of the characters were played by actors of the opposite gender.  On top of that, some of the characters weren’t able to pull off consistent accents, particularly Omozé Idenhenre as Sawda, Nawal’s companion, who, on opening night, seemed to lapse in and out of various affectations.   In the Word on Plays that accompanies this production, dramaturg Beatrice Basso interviews the translator, Linda Gboriau, who talks about trying to subliminally clue the audience that some of the characters—notary and twins–are from Montreal and go to the Middle East where French is spoken but the audience hears them in English. At other times, when the drama is in the past, in the Middle East, other things were required linguistically. Of the many nuances Gboriau aspired to, few were polished by opening night resulting in a real mish-mash.

Of the twins, Babak Tafti, as Simon, does a great job of portraying his character’s inner emotions.  At first, Simon is dismissive and embittered by the sting of his mother’s abandonment but later, as the facts unfold, he works through the stages of anger, to what we sense is evolving compassion and deep confusion.  One of the highlights of Annie Purcell’s fairly flat performance as Janine is her fascinating digression into graph theory.  Janine’s an emotionally-stilted Ph.D. candidate in theoretical math and presents a riveting analysis of how the perspective she once had of her position in the family has shifted with the new information revealed in her mother’s will.  Her comfort zone—a vertice point on a polygon with a known number of visible connections—has shifted and she now has more connections to contend with and doesn’t know how to move forward.  It is evident that the very scars that Janine’s mother inherited from her mother’s abandonment have marred Janine as well.

L to R: A militiaman (A.C.T. core acting company member Manoel Felciano) apprehends Nawal (Marjan Neshat, left) and her friend Sawda (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program graduate Omozé Idehenre) when he suspects them of being notorious revolutionaries, in the West Coast premiere of Wajdi Mouawad's “Scorched,” at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, March 11, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Truly, the psychic work of all our lives is to heal the wounds inflicted upon us by our parents.  In Scorched, we leave wondering if Nawal’s final decision, to lead her children on a journey toward the devastating truth, is too much for them to bear.  If you do see this play, go later in its run.  And be sure to catch the film, which was Canada’s official Oscar entrant and can be streamed on NetFlix.  The film touched a deep but smoldering place deep inside of me and had me thinking for days about my own origins and the emotional legacy I inherited from both my adoptive and birth parents, whereas the play came and went.   

Who is Nawal Marwan, the Woman Who Sings? In 2000, playwright Wajdi Mouawad learned the story of Soha Bechara, a Lebanese Christian with pro-Muslim sympathies, had attempted to assassinate the commander of the Israeli-supported South Lebanon Army during the Lebanese Civil War and was subsequently incarcerated in the notorious Khiam prison for a decade. She was sentenced to solitary confinement in a cell adjacent to the room where inmates were tortured. “For ten years,” Mouawad told CBS News, “she heard the crying and pain of the tortured. To try not to become mad, she began to sing. She sang the songs she knew—popular songs. The people in the jail who heard this woman but never saw her, called her The Woman who Sings. She gave them hope and courage to survive.” Bechara became Mouawad’s inspiration for Nawal, the mother whose history is uncovered by her children in Incendies. (Words on Plays, p. 6)

Details: Scorched performs a limited run February 16–March 11, 2012, at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. Performances: Tuesday–Saturday at 8 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets (starting at $10) are available by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at

March 5, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment