In 1976 Julie Harris, at the peak of her onstage career, brought this one woman play to Broadway. She managed to keep it afloat for over 100 performances at the Longacre Theatre where the revival of You Can’t Take It With You is currently enjoying an equally successful run. Joely Richardson, best known for her tv series “Nip/Tuck”, has bravely taken on the assignment and is now playing it at the Westside Upstairs Off Broadway house in a presentation by the same management, Don Gregory and Associates.
Julie Harris took this play on the road, and made it her own during the several seasons in which she returned to it again and again. Though Ms. Richardson is a resourceful and capable stage actress, I doubt that she will play it again and again, for although William Luce’s play is interesting and presents a vibrant picture of a lively but eccentric and rather conservative lady, the problem is Emily Dickinson’s life was lived essentially in her own head .
She was born in 1830 and lived out that life in the family house in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she was totally reclusive, living quietly with her parents, her sister Lavinia and her brother Austen. When he married and left to form a family of his own, she grew closer to Lavinia, and remained behind in the family home, where she spent her days baking, happily managing the house, and secretly writing poetry. She showed her poems to virtually no one, and they weren’t published until she ‘d completed perhaps 1000 of them. She enjoyed seeing a few early ones in print, coveted commercial success, but could not bring herself to mix and mingle with her devoted public, which greatly reduced her publisher’s ability to promote her work. So it wasn’t until her death in 1886 at the age of 55 that Lavinia was able, by 1890, to publish the bulk of these 1000 poems, which had been kept under cover by their obsessively private creator.
Emily Dickinson had a fairly average young life, feeling great closeness to her parents and her siblings. She formed attachments with one or two potential suitors, but they were more intellectual than personal, and though they brought her great joy for a time, she remained, as did her sister, an “old maid” by her own admission. She had no complaint of this, for she was self reliant and devoted to her family and close friends. Sue Gilbert became one of the those – mentor, muse and advisor. After a four year courtship,Ms. Gilbert married Emily’s brother Austen, though it wasn’t a happy marriage. Her friendship with Emily soured as well, but others came along to supply enough emotional contact to satisfy, comfort and enrich the very closeted poetess, this belle of Amherst. She was called that, and she liked it..
Not all of this story can be contained in the play, for it is narrated by Emily herself, and she chats with the audience as though we’d all come to hear her do just that. Ms. Richardson has great charm, and even though she’s lumbered with a simple and unglamourous wig and Emily’s customary white floor length dress, she manages to share her many moods with us by simply speaking her speeches clearly, and making use of her very mobile face.
Visiting with her for almost two hours is very pleasant and it’s nice to know that she’s brewed some tea and baked a black cake for us, with the promise of ginger bread cookies “next time we visit”, but I felt I’d had a pleasant time with a distant cousin who didn’t have anything very important to share with us, except a line or two of her hidden poems, which she managed to interject between bites of her homemade cake. This all occurred in the sitting room, or parlor, of her home. Antje Ellermann’s very neat set design made clear that no well attended parties ever took place in this space; it was furnished with two or three scattered single chairs, a writing desk, a picture or two and some french doors leading out to a pathway walled in by a line of shrubbery. Not exactly a setting in which to expect to have too much fun.
This narrative concept means that all the information we received was told to us, and of course limited to the views of just one person. There can be no scenes in which to act them out, for there are no other characters onstage. So this is more of a lecture than a play, and as such I found it interesting enough, but not nearly as revealing as the more detailed mini-biography I’d recently read in a literary magazine. Unlike the cake, which looked rich, flavorful and a bit dangerous, Mr. Luce’s offering was more like a white rice pudding. I happen to like rice pudding, but after hearing Ms. Dickinson give us the highly original recipe for her dark cake, I’d have preferred a large slice of that.
The Belle of Amherst is currently onstage at the Westside Theatre, 407 West 43rd Street, NYC.
Details and tickets.
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.