The first time I saw the one-woman play, The Belle of Amherst, by William Luce I left with an ‘artgasm’ a.k.a (also known as) the jello-like feeling that can overtake a person after experiencing delightful work and art. The second time I took the performance in was tonight and I felt, instead, acceptance of great work; rather than the initial “un-belief” of something too good to be true. A play about a favorite poetess… Emily Dickinson.

It is rare that I scrounge around, by that I mean wait tables, to pay for two performances of a show. I couldn’t, however, get this one at the Westside Theatre off my mind. After all, if you were invited into the home of the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson once… wouldn’t you return? That is how I feel too – that I’ve finally met E. Dickinson in the flesh after years of merely admiring our meeting of the minds.

Joely Richardson laid the foundation of her character by looking through the eyes, and speaking the speech, of an American (she is actually from the U.K.).  I can imagine that taking on such a different rhythm must have been a way into the life of this 19th century poet for Richardson. What impressed me best was Richardson’s specific personalization of the language. I could see the people and the images that Richardson was referring to because every word and relationship she referred to meant something real to her.  Lesson learned for me… IF your character actually says, “Now there’s a word to lift your hat to?” and gets ‘artgasms’ from words like “Massachusetts” or “circumference” THEN it is likely she is in the practice of preparing the language escaping her lips carefully and with passion and love.

A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day

A concern of mine in reflecting on this play was that I couldn’t have seen the play when it originated with Julie Harris in 1976.  Of course I would have liked to compare the productions.  I did overhear a patron walking out of the theatre in front of me state that he had seen the original production with Harris and he found Richardson’s performance to be enjoyable and “great”.  This is about as close as I’ll get to the comparison and I believe him!*

It is a difficult task to be the only actor on stage and to keep a play moving for approximately 100 minutes. The variation between Dickinson’s speaking directly to the audience and delving into imaginative role-playing and reliving of experiences with people in her life led me to be quite moved when the times came for her to actually recite her own poems. According to her environment, I witnessed the poems arise from Dickinson’s mind and words begin to dance in her view.  It was the representation of the movement of time, or the stopping of it, on the clock in her living room that spoke to her.  It was the way that people speculated on her choice to wear white clothing all the time that sparked her clever curiosity.  It was the way the birds drank water in her garden that lived in her chest.  It was the attachment to her nephew calling the place of ‘Aunt Emily’ home that moved her.

Dickinson’s recognition of her ability to separate her observance of life and her living of it also surfaced in her poems. The hundreds of poems tucked away in a wooden chest were compelled by a life and inspired by the people’s lives that she observed around her. Dickinson may have been considered to have ‘hid’ from the world more than is average but it seems to me that she made the most of her time in it.  I hope that it would have comforted Dickinson to know that it was her observance of life and her living of it together that resonates with people like me today.  I too have lost loved ones, I too have kept secrets locked in chest, I too have exploded with emotion as well as hid from it, I too can hear music in the wind invisibly lifting my soul, and I too have been given hope by words carefully chosen to lift Dickinson’s soul through time towards my own.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

(*It turns out you CAN see the Julie Harris production, which is available on Netflix, and it’s brilliant!)


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