You could call the production of William Luce’s 1976 one-woman play, The Belle of Amherst, which will open Friday at West Palm Beach’s Palm Beach Dramaworks a revival for the company, because it streamed a filmed version last summer during the COVID-19 shutdown of live theater.
But Margery Lowe, who plays poet Emily Dickinson both then and now, would disagree.
“I feel like I haven’t done it yet,” she says. “I feel like we had a dry run, a dress rehearsal, and then it never opened. I didn’t have my scene partner, the audience. You guys are so essential to this play, somehow more than other experiences. I mean, obviously the audience always is, but this is even more so an exchange. You are literally who I’m talking to. Hopefully the audience will feel that.”
The role was originated by five-time Tony Award winner Julie Harris, whose depiction of Dickinson is considered the gold standard, the definitive rendering. Yet when Terry Teachout, the late theater critic for The Wall Street Journal, reviewed PBD’s streamed Belle of Amherst, he wrote, “Ms. Lowe’s performance is superior in certain important ways to that of Julie Harris.”
So there is little wonder why Dramaworks’ producing artistic director, William Hayes, chose to bring back The Belle of Amherst and Lowe to cap this season of live theater following the pandemic shutdown. “We were both proud of the work. I think it was PBS quality. And we both went into a slump afterwards, almost dealing with a depression realizing we weren’t done with it,” says Hayes. “But I didn’t know what to do about it.
“Then I got a lot of positive feedback, with people asking ‘Can you bring it back?’ ” Hayes concedes that as he was selecting this re-opening season, “some of our decisions were based on economics.” A one-person play had a lot of appeal at a time he knew his staff would be exhausted.
“Plus, this was really, really popular and I felt Marge got a little cheated out of the process. So I thought if I did a ‘Back by popular demand’ thing, that would create a lot of momentum and positive energy around the production. And it gave both of us a lot of time to reflect on the film version, the things that we learned from it, things we would do differently, maybe some different choices we wanted to make.”
From the start, Hayes and Lowe knew they wanted to take a different approach to the role than Harris had. “I saw Emily as very defiant and very mischievous. I wanted to bring in a contemporary view of her, with her sexuality,” says Lowe. “To make it a little more immediate, more relevant. Her defiance, her strength. They referred to her in the family as ‘Emily the rascal.’ And I love that, I thought that was great.”
It is a known fact that Dickinson spent much of her life in isolation, confining herself to her Amherst, Mass., home. But Lowe rankles at the description of Dickinson as a recluse.
“She stayed inside, but I hesitate to use the word ‘reclusive’ with her. She was so human, so of this earth. She just needed to spend the time alone, literally investigating life itself,” says Lowe. “It was a conscious choice on her part. I always thought she was this agoraphobic woman, that it was fear that kept her inside. But she could not be more the polar opposite.”
“We both agree that she was a much more witty woman than most people thought, even a bit sly. She would mess with people’s heads a little bit,” notes Hayes. “She made a choice to sit at home. She’s not afraid of the world, she just prefers this choice. It’s right there in the text. And so we’re elaborating on that, giving her a sense of humor and a sense of play. There are a lot of layers we have learned about Emily Dickinson since the 1970s, because her popularity has just continued to escalate.
“Also there have been character traits that we’ve learned about Emily that we’re trying to incorporate, subtle things,” he adds. “For example, she wasn’t always necessarily writing on a pretty piece of paper. She would walk around the house and write on anything that was a writable surface. There was an urgency to get the word out. She would just tear out a piece of newspaper and start writing on it. There are candy wrappers in her archives, things she wrote on. Little subtle things that we’ve learned about her that we’re trying to bring to the production.”
Still, Lowe and Hayes had to decide who they feel Dickinson is talking to as she recounts her life in Belle of Amherst. But they would rather keep their answer to themselves.
“I don’t want to give it outright, but I think it’s someone in those last months of her life, when she is really questioning death and thinking it,” says Lowe. “And that’s why the audience is there. The hope is that the audience will leave wondering, talking about it.”
“Margery is way too intelligent for me to say, ‘Just talk to the audience.’ And so we had this discussion and we came up with what we think works,” says Hayes. “I don’t want to answer that question., but there is definitely an answer. Hopefully you’ll feel that. If you’re smart enough, you’ll figure it out.”
Longtime attendees of Dramaworks are probably aware that The Belle of Amherst is not Lowe’s first experience with the character of Dickinson. In April of 2018, she appeared in the world premiere of Joseph McDonough’s Edgar & Emily, a decidedly tongue-in-cheek, fictional encounter between Dickinson and the ghost of fellow poet Edgar Allan Poe. Then, as now, Lowe has felt a physical as well as psychic connection with the poet.
“She was 5-foot-2 and she was a redhead, as I am,” she says. “So no need to dye my hair. And also she was pretty intense, as I am known to be. She had a very strong passion for life and for living. And that’s how I feel. It’s impossible not to fall in love with her as you get to know her. I feel that she is speaking directly to me, like a soulmate.
“I joined the International Emily Dickinson Fan Club on Facebook and you get a poem a day. So now I’m surrounded by her pictures and her poems, because she just talks to my soul. I know that sounds crazy, but she sings to me.”
Hayes adds, “I remembered thinking back when we did ‘Edgar and Emily,’ “You know what, she needs to do ‘Belle’ some day, because she’s physically perfectly suited to the role. Now she’s at the right age and she’s going to really understand the woman. Knowing Marge as the intellectual she is, she’s going to understand Emily’s language. I’ve known Marge for 15 years, and I knew that Marge was going to completely fall in love with Emily Dickinson.”
And by coming to see Belle of Amherst, Hayes feels that audiences will do so, too. “I hope you’ll become more interested in her work and her as a person. To understand her more, more intrigued by her. And as a result, I think you’ll become more interested in learning about her body of work.”
THE BELLE OF AMHERST, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Friday, May 20– Sunday, June 5. $79. Call 561-514-4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.