By the time poet Elizabeth Bishop reached Rio in 1951, she was already pretty storm-tossed by life. Her father died of Bright’s disease when she was only eight months old, and her mother was eventually committed to a mental institution where she, too, died. Shuttled senselessly back and forth from New England to Nova Scotia between both sets of grandparents, she had a chilly childhood, growing up feeling friendless and homeless. Her isolation in life was underlined by asthma, alcoholism and lesbianism—three strikes in the 1940’s—so, upon graduation from Vassar, she took to traveling a lot, in flight from herself more than anything else but also spurred by a scholarly curiosity about the world around her.
When she hopped a freighter to Brazil, it was with the idea of touring the whole of South America, but on a whim, at the first drop of an anchor, she disembarked to look up two friends she had made in New York—a Brazilian and an American who lived in Rio de Janeiro. They invited her to their summer home in the mountains, and on the trek Bishop committed the classic tourist blunder of eating the food, getting sick and winding up in the hospital. She fell in love with the Brazilian—Lota de Macedo Soares, an innovative thinker central to Brazil’s intellectual and artistic scene—and, for 15 years, found the home that had always eluded her (three, in fact: in Rio, nearby Petrópolis and, later, Ouro Preto). Bishop’s second volume of poetry, "Poems: North and South—A Cold Spring," appeared in 1955 and won the Pulitzer Prize. Her new homeland also became the background for the poems collected a decade later in "Questions of Travel" (1965).
Sharing the same home-away-from-home gives Amy Irving special access to A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop, the solo piece she’s performing at 59E59 Theaters through the end of April. “Of course, it echoed a lot of my own life as a woman who fell in love with a Brazilian and fell in love with a culture,” concedes Irving. “I was married to a Brazilian for 15 years, the same amount of time that Elizabeth and Lota were together. I’m not with my husband anymore, but I still keep a home down there. I love it in Brazil.”
Marta Góes, Michigan-born but brought up five minutes from Bishop’s home in Petropólis, wrote the play originally in Portuguese, but this was no problemo for a born-again Brazilian like Irving. “I called Marta and told her how much I liked the play and how I thought we could adapt it for an American audience,” Irving says. “Then I got on a plane to São Paulo, where she lives, and we went up to the mountains outside of Rio and visited Elizabeth’s home and saw where she did all of her work. Then we went back to Marta’s family’s home, and we talked about scenes that would be necessary and things that needed to be clarified because [there was] a lot about politics and people we’d never heard of. “It’s not highbrow, yet you walk away being exposed to some of Bishop’s poetry and writing. You watch the artist in progress. You see the transformation. You see the poetry come out of the experience, the artistry come out of the woman. You get to see the whole personal life and the poetry that emerges from it. I think that’s a pretty exciting thing.”
Irving’s own safe harbor might surprise you, given the indelible mark her attractive, feline features have made on the big screen and her own propensity for marrying famous film directors (Steven Spielberg and Bruno Barreto). It is Theatre, with a capital T if not all caps. She has already logged a full half- century on the boards and is two years into the second half, having been hurled onstage by her parents at the tender age of nine months.
Dad (Jules Irving) was the artistic director—and Mom (Priscilla Pointer) the leading lady—of an acting troupe they co-founded with her now-stepfather, Robert Symonds, called the San Francisco Actors Workshop. "All three of us kids were put on the stage because our mom didn’t really believe in baby-sitters. When we weren’t in the shows, we were either falling asleep in the wardrobe department backstage or she’d put all three of us in the second row center while she’d be up there doing Masha or Kate, and, about the middle of Act II, she’d see all of us would be fast asleep and she’d feel good that all was calm. We were sent to Sunday school, but really she thought theatre was our religion.
“It was just a very colorful, wonderful way to grow up. The San Francisco Actors Workshop was a real company. They had company picnics. Every Christmas, whatever play was happening then, we’d use those costumes and dress up in them. When Mom was doing Three Sisters, we were all dressed up in Chekhov. When Dad was doing Waiting for Godot, we were all suddenly wearing derbies. When you look at our home movies, it was all the various actors from the company at play, being very wild and very animated.
“The going off to make movies was kind of an accident. It was never my goal. While I was in drama school in London, my father started directing television in L.A. My mother’s agent saw a picture of me on the piano and asked to sign me up. I got 'Carrie' the first year, but, after a few films, I got antsy to be back onstage so I came to New York and auditioned for Amadeus and went into that nine months, replacing Jane Seymour.”
The man who got her on Broadway for the first time was the assistant stage manager (and valet bit-player) for Amadeus—Richard Jay-Alexander, who played both Salieri and Mozart for her role-winning audition and is now the man shepherding her through A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop, her first solo show. South America, do the rest—take it away!