When most actors walk on to a stage, an audience sees just that: an actor. A charismatic actor, maybe, or a compelling actor. Comically gifted, or sullen, possibly sympathetic. It is a demand of the craft to take this title off the table completely, and out of the mind of the audience. A good actor eases into in the illusion and bends reality with patience, dedication, grace. A great actor, however, needs no time to transform, and simply is from the stage’s first breath. Emily Dickinson is at the Bay Theatre Company in The Belle of Amherst, and it isn’t to be overlooked.
The poetry of Emily Dickinson is ubiquitous, a stand-out in the hall of great American poets. But like many geniuses who saw around the archaic bends of tradition and into the future of artistic possibility, her work did not enjoy the lifetime success of the contemporaries she admired. What kind of person could continue to create so prolifically in the face of anonymity, ridicule, and discouragement? The Belle of Amherst lets us look into the mysterious window of her life, a window in which she is forever looking out.
Written by William Luce in 1976, the piece takes place in a single (but lively) room inhabited only by the poet herself, played exquisitely by Kathryn Kelly. An admittedly plain girl with a love of words, (“Words are my life.”) Dickinson vividly recalls the joys and sorrows of living in the world, floating in and out of time as geniuses often do. Though she recounts her life as a fifty-something “recluse,” insistent upon wearing only white dresses (Costume Design, Christina McAlpine) she still looks at the world around her as though she were seeing it for the first time. Sunrises are stunning, friends are glorious, and love and death are, well, everywhere.
The poetry of Emily Dickinson is interspersed seamlessly throughout the piece, always natural, flowing, and wholly moving, conveying the poignancy of Dickinson’s gaze upon the world. Kelly’s beautiful and nuanced portrayal is not just of an enigmatic woman, but of a life lived. Dickinson’s childlike wonder is present in every step. It ricochets from floor to ceiling, as she tears through her small room, and is met with helpless agony that brings her to her knees. Though Dickinson’s cooped up existence seems, at times, to inch into Grey Gardens territory (Dickinson proudly confesses to not having left the house in years), it is apparent she sees the workings of the inside and outside more clearly than most.
Under Jerry Whiddon’s masterly direction, the tumultuous emotions of a sensitive innocent are given life past the page, and burst through the blackbox theatre with a sweet sadness that is, at times, difficult to bear. Ken Sheat’s beautiful set, intricate and revealing, manages to unravel a world inside and allude to a world out. And John Burkland‘s lighting design is as evolving as Dickinson’s temperament. The production is a moving entity, all synched to the same poetic rhythm.
Emily Dickinson endured the self-conscious pain of being as anonymous for her art as she was ridiculed for her life. She held onto hundreds of poems, never certain of their publication, and sat in house as locals whispered and scoffed. Her life, however, was just as beautiful as her art. The Belle of Amherst does every word of that beauty justice.
The Belle of Amherst runs thru May 6, 2012 at the Bay Theatre, 275 West Street Annapolis, Md.
The Belle of Amherst
Written by William Luce
Produced by the Bay Theatre Company
Directed by Jerry Whiddon
Reviewed by Sarah Ameigh
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including a 15 minute intermission