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A CurtainUp Review
The Belle Of Amherst
By Elyse Sommer
As tight budgets have contributed to the proliferation of the one-person play The Belle of Amherst is still regarded as a benchmark for the genre's autobiographical subset in which the subject takes on the voices of the other characters in her life. Numerous actors have undertaken the role that, in addition to its enormous text memorizing demands, is shadowed by the legacy of Julie Harris's incandescent performance.
Now, for the first time since its 1976 Broadway run, The Belle. . . is on a New York Stage. The new Emily Dickinson is Jolie Richardson. She comes to the role with a respectable stage resume ( Windermere's Fan, Side Effects, Madame Melville , Ivanov ), but she's best known as a member of a theater dynasty (her mother is Vanessa Redgrave) and her part in the cable series Nip/Tuck.
Since this rare revival is directed by Steve Cosson I somehow expected it to be staged with some nod to the theater world's current penchant for trendy new interpretations and staging bells and whistles. You see, Cossom is the artistic director of the The Civilians, a company known for edgy, very now productions. But surprise, surprise, the only thing new about Cosson's production is that he's directed Ms. Richardson to play Emily Dickinson with almost frantic physicality. Antje Ellermann's single set is actually less detailed than the original, the costume is still just one white dress by William Ivey Long. The quite glamorous Richardson looks appropriately plain, dark auburn hair pulled into a schoomarmish bun, almost a replica of the original get-up. And yes, she's wearing a white dress throughout.
Also in place is Luce's concept for creating a portrait of Emily Dickinson's life and poetry from her letters and poems; and so is his device for maintaining a conversational tone and connecting us to Dickinson by having her enter and invite us to join her for tea and the cake she's just baked. But somehow, at least during the first act, it's only when Dickinson's often humorous confidences about her family, neighbors, teachers and friends morph into an actual poem that this production catches fire — to wit, her explanation of why a poet must carefully choose the best words: "A word is dead/When it is said,/Some say. Begins to live/That day."
Richardson certainly can't be faulted for not mastering the word-heavy text and delivering it with clarity and passion. However, as the playwright allowed the narrative to fluidly move backward and forward through Dickinson's reminiscences, the way Cosson sends Richardson scurrying around the stage — at times throwing herself on the floor — makes for a too busy but not sufficiently emotionally absorbing performance.
The more successful second act follows up on the previous act's finale which announced that, after an 8-year correspondence, the distinguished editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson would be coming to the Dickinson home. We probably become more engaged at this juncture because Richardson seems to have adjusted to the jumping-all-over-the place direction and because this segment has her less girlish and with more easy to relate-to material to work — such as dealing with her failed ambitions to be a recognized poet. But mostly this is because we also get to hear some of her best poems.
It's Dickinson's words that make us less aware of the shortcomings of this production. That includes the words that give voice to her disappointment in Higginson's rejection of her work: "A great Hope fell/ You heard no noise/The Ruin was within. . ." There's also the soul wrenching and much quoted "Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul/And sings the tune without the words/And never stops - at all."
Still the shadow of Julie Harris haunts this Belle of Amherst. Given that too much time has passed since I saw Harris for me to recall just what it was about that long-ago performance that stuck so favorably with me, I decided to check out the You Tube replay of the original. I was going to just fast forward through but found myself staying with all of it. Harris was indeed remarkable. She also moved around the set (which was much richer than the current one) but there was nothing frenzied about her movements. Director Charles Nelson Reilly gave her more touching and natural bits of business. The first act's humor hit home with its charm and naturalness, instead of feeling more forced than funny as it did at the Westside Arts Theater. The poems, while well delivered by Richardson, virtually soared when spoken by Harris.
I'm a firm believer in live theater and filmed versions of stage plays as a wonderful way to introduce a wide audience to live theater. However, there's nothing like live theater. I'm nevertheless concluding this review with a link to the You Tube version of The Belle of Amherst with Julie Harris because it's a great opportunity to see the artist who made the most of William Luce's gift to her as well as a master class in evaluating the difference between a good and an incomparably superb performance. The Belle of Amherst on You Tube
If seeing the play stirs up your interest in re-reading Dickinson's poems, as it did mine, various editions are available FREE at Amazon.