NEW YORK—Joely Richardson makes a genial host as Emily Dickinson, in a strong revival of William Luce’s one-woman show The Belle of Amherst, now playing off-Broadway at the Westside Theatre.
The year is 1883 at Dickinson’s childhood residence in Amherst, Mass., a place she refers to as “the homestead.” The now middle-aged Emily is living in the house with her sister, Lavinia, neither woman having ever married.
Over the years, Emily has gained a reputation among the townspeople as something of an oddball. Not at ease with people, she often tries to avoid being seen, hiding whenever someone comes to visit or when people try to catch a glance of her through the window.
Emily also always wears white—”Bridal White” as she calls it, giving rise to rumors of an unhappy love affair long ago. She writes strange notes to her neighbors, as well as sends them cakes. Black cake is her particular favorite. She has one in her hands when she welcomes the audience, regarding them as guests, into her home.
As she makes clear early on, Emily prefers words to people, being much happier when left alone with her poetry. Currently she has a trunk full of poems, though so far only seven have been published, all anonymously.
With a penchant for meandering through time in her conversations, events both recent and long ago come together to form the show’s narrative. Emily recalls, among other things, her relationship with her father, her continual struggle to be taken seriously as a writer, and her unlucky attempts at love.
It’s through these accounts that a fully formed portrait of Emily begins to emerge. She was obviously quite close to her father, even though he was often emotionally distant. This relationship seems to color her romantic encounters. Every man she ever took a fancy to—at least those she mentions—are all older than she, all married, and thus all unattainable.
There’s also the matter of her rather possessive sister, who went into a frenzy whenever Emily began to get close to anyone.
Emily was, as she called herself, a rather plain girl, and while she once thought of herself as The Belle of Amherst during the dances she used to attend, she was not considered a belle by the boys she spoke to. They were attracted to Emily’s prettier friends.
Also evident is Emily’s severe lack of confidence. After an eight-year correspondence with a publisher, he comes to visit her one day only to tell her that her writing will never amount to anything.
Yet rather than try to find someone else to publish her work, as her friends and family urge her to do, Emily continues to send him her poetry, even though she knows her efforts will probably come to naught.
After a while, one gets the feeling that Emily is a woman who wants much out of life but is afraid to go out and get it.
Richardson shows a completely different side of Dickinson when reciting several of her poems. These pieces, interspersed throughout the performance, show her to be a woman with a lot to say. They also demonstrate her love for the power of the written word.
These words evoke images and illustrate the passion that is just waiting to be unlocked by anyone who reads them. Some of the more striking pieces deal with heaven, hope, summer, birds, and even drink.
Richardson also does a good job in giving Dickinson more than a bit of whimsy and quiet resignation about her situation. Much of the former comes early on in the show as she recounts how others regard her. This is a perception she is more than happy to continue cultivating.
The result is a character who is compelling and engaging, and one who realizes that being around people is not always unpleasant. She’s also a woman who knows the pain of heartbreak. She has lost many loved ones over the years but is still not quite finished with life herself.
Steve Cosson’s direction is quite good, with Richardson continually moving back and forth across the stage, powerfully emoting poetry, and telling Emily’s story with a combination of nostalgia, wistfulness, and sorrow.
Costumes by William Ivey Long are gorgeous to look at. While the set by Antje Ellermann is rather plain and formal, it still manages to feel homey. Lighting effects by David Weiner work quite well.
An involving tale with a performance that draws one in, The Belle of Amherst is informative without being dry and powerful without being maudlin; it leaves one wanting to learn more about this highly introverted yet fascinating individual. Well done!
‘The Belle of Amherst’
407 W. 43rd St.
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Closes: Nov. 23
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.