Two poets’ lives artfully captured in ‘Dear Elizabeth’

By JULIE MCHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

October 1, 2015


Photos by Paul Ruffolo

Carrie Hitchcock as Elizabeth Bishop and Norman Moses as Robert Lowell in “Dear Elizabeth.” The featured performers are married to each other. The play explores the lives and relationship of two 20th-century poets. The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre production runs through Oct. 18.

MILWAUKEE - Anchored by a strong script by Sarah Ruhl and stellar performances by Norman Moses and Carrie Hitchcock, the lives of poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop are brought to light in the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s second offering of the 2015-16 season.

This play was based on 30 years (1947-77) of more than 400 letters exchanged between these two writers.  Though quite different in their poetic styles and life histories, they struck a chord with each other and remained close friends their whole lives. Their friendship hovered somewhere between platonic and romantic.

Bishop was a private person and her published output was quite lean.  Lowell, on the other hand, was much more flamboyant in his personality and prolific in his literary output.  Both poets received national acclaim, though Lowell was much more in the public eye. Both poets also had problems with depression and alcoholism, Lowell spending some years in a mental institution being treated for bipolar disorder, formerly labeled manic depression.

A simple but eye-catching set design by Steve Barnes consists of two desks and a peripheral trench of water that figures into some of their travels. Clever! Marie Kohler’s direction provided good pacing to keep us interested throughout.

Bishop spent many years in Brazil and had a torrid love affair with a powerful Brazilian woman architect, Lota de Macedo Soares, a woman who eventually committed suicide and broke Bishop’s heart. Out of that tragedy, one of her best poems, “One Art,” emerged.

Trevor Kearns’ article “Two Poets, One Art” sums up the difference between them -”If Bishop’s poems are gems, Lowell’s are chandeliers, bursting with immense energy that glitters through historical, social, and theological facets.” Lowell’s works are also much more personal, something that Bishop criticized him for.

The fascinating play is full of allusions to many other literary figures, and the ever-changing flavor of the art of poetry in the 20th century. Moses and Hitchcock, a talented pair of actors who are married to each other, definitely connect in this one.


“Dear Elizabeth”

The play runs through Oct. 18 in the Studio Theater in the Broadway Theater Center at 158 N. Broadway St., Milwaukee. Call 414-291-7800 or visit