"I was on bed rest, pregnant with twins, and I couldn't leave the house," begins Ruhl, a two-time Pulitzer nominee and Tony nominee.
"A friend gave me 'Words in Air' because she knew I was already obsessed with Elizabeth Bishop, and I just couldn't put the book down. I was so riveted by these two people and by what might happen to them."
"Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell," is a published collection of letters written between the two poets from 1947-77. The letters trace their deep connection, unique friendship and blossoming careers.
"It's kind of amazing," says Ruhl of the relationship. "There is such intimacy between them, and, as a writer, you long for intimacy with another writer who can understand your relationship to the invisible world. I think these letters are a hymn to friendship and that's partly what makes them so compelling." "I think also for a writer, they're like an architectural map of this yearning that writers have," she continues. "To have their imaginations in concert with another writer."
Ruhl became so enchanted by their correspondence that she began to dream about them. "My first ambition was, 'Oh my God, I would just really love to hear some of these letters read out loud,'" says the playwright. "Then I became fascinated by the idea of making it into a play."
Dear Elizabeth, which is having its Off-Broadway premiere at The Women's Project, is pieced together directly from the letters themselves — a huge task considering there are over 800 pages of material.
See Kathleen Chalfant and Harris Yulin Celebrate Opening Night of Dear Elizabeth
"It was very hard," explains Ruhl. "It took many drafts and many missteps. The attempt was really to streamline it so that it was only about their relationship."
Part of the fascination for Ruhl was trying to ascertain what happened outside of the letters, during the real-life meetings between Lowell and Bishop. In one of his letters, as portrayed in Dear Elizabeth, Lowell alludes to a moment when the two were standing waist-deep in water under moonlight. No other details are shared.
"I was so fascinated by what happened in the gaps in the letters when they saw each other," says Ruhl. "There were these interludes that were few and far between, they didn't see each other that much, but I was desperate to try and find out and piece together what happened when they saw each other."
Does she believe, as many do, that the two friends were in fact soul mates destined to be with one another romantically?
"I don't think their love could be expressed in the physical world," says Ruhl. "I think the two of them could not have been productive writers and been together, there is just no way. I think the friendship was deeply, deeply sustaining and that is probably all that it could have been."
Ruhl did a lot of research on the pair, reading not only the poets' bodies of work but exploring their biographies, published interviews and speaking with people who had known them. The letters, with their subtle truths, vulnerability and intimacy, are what makes Dear Elizabeth so compelling.
"It makes me so nostalgic for the art of letter writing," says Ruhl.
"I think that those two might have been some of the last great letter writers in the English language. I feel like our relationships are now formed through this bizarre textual immediacy and lack of privacy. What they had was this distillation of thought and experience over time. We don't have that anymore, we just don't."
Ruhl says it's difficult to maintain some of the older, more romantic traditions like letter writing in this day and age.
"I try, but I really get waylaid by the way culture is set up," she confesses. "I'll sometimes try to write long letters to poet friends or other writers and we'll go back and forth but then, you know, you want to tell someone something quickly, so you text them."
Audiences at Dear Elizabeth will be sure to feel the same sense of nostalgia that Ruhl experienced when discovering the letters for the first time. The play, which began performances Oct. 26 and is directed by Kate Whoriskey, features a rotating cast of actors playing the acclaimed poets including two-time Tony winner Cherry Jones, Tony nominee Kathleen Chalfant, "Girls" star Becky Ann Baker and Obie winner John Douglas Thompson, among others.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit WPT.org or phone (212) 765-1706.