Thursday, December 2, 1999
"People in small towns must have their local characters," announces poet Emily Dickinson in the first few minutes of William Luce''s one-woman play, The Belle of Amherst, opening at the Carl Cherry Center in Carmel on Friday. To the townspeople of 19th-century Amherst, Mass., this shy, reclusive figure in white who never left her family home and whisked herself out of her garden to avoid being seen by passers-by, was indeed a character provoking curiosity and conjecture. Since her death in 1886 and the recognition of Dickinson as one of our country''s premier poets, she continues to intrigue readers and scholars.
In The Belle of Amherst, Luce gives Dickinson the opportunity to present herself to the audience using, in large part, her own words culled from more than 1,700 poems and hundreds of letters she left behind.
The play, set in the Dickinson family home, takes place in 1883 when the poet is 53 years old and living with her sister Lavinia.
On this unusual day, they have visitors (the audience) and Dickinson serves tea and one of her special cakes which she graciously offers along with the recipe. Acknowledging her reputation as "Squire Edward Dickinson''s half-cracked daughter," she confides that the eccentric pose is deliberate. "I do it on purpose," she says, with a figurative wink to the audience.
During the "visit," Dickinson introduces those closest to her--her stern, undemonstrative father, her quirky sister, and her beloved brother Austin, and others of importance to her--to the publisher Thomas Higginson whose professional interest in her work encouraged her writing and the mysterious person who became the object of her romantic love whom she calls "Master."
She exposes her joy in language and nature and those she loves as well as her deep disappointments and profound feelings of frustration as her genius remains unrecognized.
In the course of the play, Dickinson exposes the many sides of herself, through reenactment of major events from her life, reflections on subjects ranging from gossip to ecstasy, and recitation of her poetry, which often emerges so naturally from her prose that the audience is simply eased into it.
The evocative power of her language is, of course, a constant presence and a rare opportunity to hear her poetry in the context of her life. In the end what emerges is a complex portrait of a highly sensitive artist--passionate, spiritual and ultimately quite sane.
MPC theater instructor Conrad Selvig, who regularly directs productions at the Cherry Center, once again has teamed up with local actress Marlie Avant in this performance of The Belle of Amherst. The two are not new to the piece, having performed it 11 years ago with great success in the same venue. Both feel the intervening years have deepened their understanding of Dickinson as person and poet. Selvig says he is fascinated by the timeliness of Dickinson''s social comments, although she lived well over a hundred years ago.
For Avant, playing the part again "is like being called home," she says. The role first played by Julie Harris in 1976 is a tour de force for an actress, requiring a high level of skill and stamina. Judging from a recent rehearsal I attended, Avant is more than up to the task, bringing warmth, humor, passion and variety to the role.
"There''s a heartfelt connection to her," says Avant, "something very deep. What she says about life, love, death...and her spirituality and aliveness touch me in a special way. Her passion wasn''t expressed in a physical relationship, but in communion with a higher self. She made me rethink passion."
The Belle of Amherst previews tonight and opens Friday at the Carl Cherry Center, Guadalupe and 4th, in Carmel. 646-9478 for tickets and information. For special benefit performance on 12/9, call 624-7491.