Dorset Theatre Festival: Intimacy of friendship foundation of 'Dear Elizabeth'

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DORSET, VT. — In an age before text messages, emails, and Skyping were all the rage in interactive communications, the handwritten word carried great weight when forging relationships over the long haul.

This was the same world where two giants of American letters, the poets Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) and Robert Lowell (1917-1977), found themselves locked in such a close correspondence.

Dorset Theatre Festival will stage the regional premiere of Sarah Ruhl's "Dear Elizabeth," which follows the friendship between Lowell and Bishop, as seen through their letters and poems. The play opens Friday and runs through July 23.

Adrienne Campbell-Holt will direct the play, which was a recent hit off-Broadway at The Women's Project. Andrea Syglowski will play Bishop, and Chris Henry Coffey portrays Lowell.

From the time they first met in 1947 at a party thrown by poet Randall Jarrell, until Lowell died in 1977, the friendship between the two poets was well known and established in writing circles and with the general reading public.

Over the last decade, numerous articles have covered the correspondence, and in 2010, the latest edition of their complete letters, "Words In Air," met critical acclaim upon its release.

Bishop and Lowell, each in their own way, were complex, volatile and seemingly wracked with emotional turbulence. Lowell in particular suffered several manic-depressive bouts.

Dorset artistic executive director Dina Janis said that along with the cast of two, the show will also feature the video production technology seen last season in "Outside Mullingar." The latter will help enhance the set as well as create a vibe, which audience members can tailor to their own imagination.

"It's a celebration of friendship and explores the dynamics of intimacy," Janis said. "It's also a play that takes the audience into the world of poetry, to experience a poem in the moment. These two poets in particular were fierce, brilliant, often funny. Their friendship is rich and the play is written in a way that allows the audience in."

Audience immersion into an intimate world is a recurring theme with the cast and crew.

Director Campbell-Holt even went as far as to say that the downtime spent together with her two actors in the long Vermont summer days has helped by all of them "talking and ruminating on the play actively or passively."

"I've worked with Andrea Syglowski and Chris Coffey before," Campbell-Holt said. "Much of the important groundwork of getting to know each other and bringing truthful vulnerability into the work has already been built."

Molly Henninghausen, Dorset's managing director, agreed with Campbell-Holt. She added that the feel of intimacy in a show of this nature, which harbors both literary and historical ambitions, requires a watchful balance to maintain the integrity of both.

Given that Bishop and Lowell are historical figures, she emphasized that "Dorset must honor this in our production.

"For example, one of the choices that the director makes prior to casting is whether the characters will be of the same age as Bishop and Lowell, and at what time point in their lives," Henninghausen said.

Since this play takes place over the course of many years, she said, determining what character age to represent was key.

Also, the actors have spent much of the research process reading the work and about the lives of Bishop and Lowell, as it is of the utmost importance to portray these characters in an authentic manner, Henninghausen said.

As a result, the consensus at Dorset Theatre Festival is that audience members will experience a viscerally human production.

ON STAGE ...

What: "Dear Elizabeth," by Sarah Ruhl

When: Runs July 7 through July 23

Where: Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Rd., Dorset, Vt.

Information: Call 802-867-2223 or visit dorsettheatrefestival.org


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