For the past 46 years, the theatrical image that many of us have had of poet Emily Dickinson has come from William Luce’s one-woman play, The Belle of Amherst, and from Julie Harris’s Tony Award-winning, definitive performance in the role.
But now, aided by new information about Dickinson uncovered in the intervening years, Palm Beach Dramaworks and actress Margery Lowe are putting a quite different spin on the text, resulting in an eye-opening new vision of the Massachusetts woman of letters.
Whether the approach of Lowe – and her director William Hayes – is more accurate than Harris’s is hard to tell, but it is certainly more entertaining. For she puts the emphasis on Dickinson’s sly and saucy nature, embracing life, though from the vantage point of her self-exile within her family home in Amherst. And if the neighbors see her as “Squire Edward Dickinson’s half-cracked daughter,” that amuses her as well.
The production’s lightened tone is welcome, because the play – a two-and-a-quarter-hour monologue – is a bit of a slog, with all of the usual limitations of the biographical monodrama genre.
If Lowe seems comfortable delivering all of Luce’s verbiage – and she does — that could be because this is her second go-round with the material. The Belle of Amherst was originally scheduled in Dramaworks’ previous, COVID-scrapped season, salvaged by a fully staged and filmed version of the work which was then available through streaming last April. Now revived, the play gains the diminutive Lowe’s command of the stage and rapport with the audience, the unparalleled values of live theater.
Those expecting to hear Dickinson talk about her creative process may be somewhat taken aback by her initial proud presentation of a newly baked black cake and her recitation of its recipe, which requires 19 eggs. This is, after all, the middle of the 19th century, long before anyone worried about the perils of cholesterol.
Over the span of the play, we do hear several of Dickinson’s estimated 1,800 poems, often as they first arrive in her brain and she scurries to write them down on scraps of newspaper or envelopes. She struggles to conjure up the exact words she needs and cherishes their very sound, as, for instance, we hear her caress each syllable of “phosphorescence.”
When we first meet Dickinson, she is 53, just a few years before her death in 1886 following two-and-a-half years of ill health. The play then flashes back and forth in time throughout her life and Lowe does a remarkable job of subtly delineating her character’s aging process. A little startled at first to see guests in her home, she quickly adjusts to having company and guides us about Michael Amico’s well-appointed period parlor and through her life. Deflecting attention away from herself, she introduces us to her stern, but beloved congressman father, her siblings and her suitors, sometimes by one-sided conversations, solo show style.
Much of the first act is light in tone, to contrast with the second half. There, her hopes for publication of her poems are raised by a correspondence relationship with Thomas Higginson, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, only to have them dashed when he travels to Amherst to meet her in person. She also details her yearnings for love, which fail to be resolved in marriage. While these disappointments register momentarily on Lowe’s face, the melancholy does not last long. Ultimately, however, she becomes fixated on death, which becomes the subject of her latter poems.
Throughout the play, Lowe moves about the wide stage, alighting in various playing spaces on the set, a self-conscious cliché of one-person shows. Similarly, Kirk Bookman’s lighting keeps illuminating and extinguishing those areas, underlining the artificiality of the exercise. Still, if you can get beyond these liabilities to concentrate on Dickinson’s words and immerse yourself in Lowe’s performance, there is much to admire in this Belle of Amherst.
THE BELLE OF AMHERST, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, June 5. $79. 561-514-4042 or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.