I approached the revival of William Luce’s one-actor play The Belle of Amherst, about reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, with some trepidation. I remember seeing the originals production on Broadway (starring Julie Harris, directed by Charles Nelson Reilly) and being bored out of my skull. The play did relatively well withut my approval all the same—smiley emoticon here—Ms. Harris performing it over 100 to rave reviews and winning a Tony Award to boot…but I just didn’t find anything terribly compelling in the life of a woman who seemed to have not much of one.
Of course, that was 38 years ago.
Experiencing it again, having been through all manner of life and career turns, the beating heart of the play makes a lot more sense to me now. It’s not about a life lived sans much in the way of event; but rather about a life lived in nuance, and indeed the kind of nuance that informed the observations and perspective of her poetry.
Not, I hasten to add, that this makes The Belle of Amhurst a whole lot more compelling to me, personally; but I can say that I wasn’t bored, much less out of my mind. But I have to credit more than maturity for this. I indulged myself a quick visit to the video of that first production (you can catch in on YouTube) and found, now, as then, that the performance was delivered with—I have to describe it this way, and with apologies to the memory of the very gifted Ms. Harris—what struck me as a sing-song vibrato, the classic affectation of female shyness; along with a sense of lines well read, at times near-melodramatically, as if all this were somehow important. And on an impressionistic set to boot; drawing room furniture against a backdrop of woods and birch trees, Ms. Harris, as I say, got her accolades, but among my peers I wasn’t alone in finding the atmosphere stultifying.
But in this new production, Joely Richardson is blessedly unaffected. She just kind of does it, simply and straightforwardly. The emotional beats are thus approached with a commensurate, transparent honesty; and that puts forth the illusion that Ms. Dickinson is just talking to us informally about her life. And that keeps it interesting for those of us who might be inclined not to otherwise find it so. (Not to put too fine a point on it, the set, an unidentified room near an entranceway to her house, with some outer hint of the woods beyond—a relatively realistic space, yet spare, to allow it being “filled” by anecdotal memory—also helps to ground the material and the performance.)
The narrative of the play does something not entirely easy to grasp—for despite that the opening monologue suggests the dramatic device, the context hasn’t been established and it’s easy to overlook the relevant lines—which is that as Emily tells us of her life, she simultaneously moves through it, not merely living out her young years, but her years to come. But Ms. Richardson, and her director Steve Cosson, have found ways to “mark” this strategy so that it becomes comprehensible—and to frame it such that we can return from her “moving in time” to what might best be called home position.
The Belle of Amherst is a neat little tour de force in this iteration. Showing that you needn’t be aesthetically pretentious to be unabashedly poetic.
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