The Belle of Amherst
The Belle of Amherst, by William Luce
Off-Broadway, Westside Theatre Upstairs, 407 W. 43rd St., New York, NY
Reviewed by Scott Klavan on October 18, 2014
What happens to make a project go wrong? Intentions are always good, cast and crew professional and dedicated, producers will know what will work or won’t, or should know. But something goes awry after the planning, the contracts, during or after rehearsal. Ego, complacency, expediency—simply, bad luck? And yes, it’s likely that fear is involved somewhere in there; the hesitation to take a risk, to fully commit. Then, it’s too late: there is a point of embarkation, when the ship, the project, leaves the dock, heading to deep water, unable to turn back. The audience is faced with something that frustrates, and disappoints.
Such is the case with the current production of William Luce’s one-woman show, The Belle of Amherst, performed by the British actress Joely Richardson, in the role of famed reclusive poet Emily Dickinson. The play, originally written in 1976 for Julie Harris, is being revived Off-Broadway, at Westside Theatre Upstairs, on West 43rd Street, directed by Steve Cosson.
The show opens in 1883, with Emily, at 53, in a long white modest house dress, entering the Amherst, Massachusetts home she then shares with her father, and sister Vinnie, keeping contact with brother Austin. Carrying a Black Cake she has just baked, she is surprised by the sight of the audience. Dickinson invites everyone to share the dessert with her, explaining details of the recipe. Gradually, we get into the life of this woman, who has shut herself off from society, devoting herself steadfastly to her art of poetry, finding solace in relationships with her sister and brother and father, but missing the ultimate love she might have experienced with an outside man. Emily tells how she continually and hopefully sent her growing list of innovative poems to Atlantic Monthly editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and when he visits Amherst to speak with her, Emily’s hopes skyrocket. But Higginson rejects the work. Decimated, Emily continues to write, making over a thousand poems; publishing only a few, her passion levels off. Even the best listeners, like Mr. Higginson, she declares, are “deaf.” What follows is the inevitable aging and death of her father, the shocking illness and death of her 8-year-old nephew, and, seeking a perfect love, a passionate but sexless relationship Emily shares with a married man, a minister, Mr. Wadsworth, who visits a few times, but who himself eventually dies. She tries to embrace conventional religion, to no avail:
At least to pray—is left—is left—
Oh Jesus—in the air
I know not which thy chamber is
Emily’s life moves into the metaphysical: she ponders death, and questions whether what we see is all we will know, or whether there is something else out there, invisible, flawless, only available after we are gone, in the mist. From beginning to end, Emily Dickinson writes and reads her poetry, demonstrating her ground-breaking skill, use of offbeat rhyme, her newly invented meter. The work is a balm, but is it enough? There’s something missing, always…
Joely Richardson was obviously suffering from a cold during the performance this reviewer attended and, with a one-person show, there is nowhere to hide. She did a stalwart job and soldiered through, but the result was artificial. Putting aside illness, there is the question of casting. Richardson, a rangy, beauteous, elegant woman, with a wholesome and positive affect, doesn’t seem the right choice for Dickinson, who describes herself as “plain” and is usually thought of as dark, smallish, and, if not withdrawn, quirky and sensitive. (It doesn’t help that due to the original production, also filmed for TV, the piece remains associated with the flighty and tremulous Julie Harris.) While making a different kind of casting choice is not illegal, and certainly has the capacity to invigorate a piece, here, it tends to dilute the central dilemma of the character—why she stays inside—and as well as soften to almost nothing her underlying anguish and loneliness. In this show, Richardson and Director Cosson present a hearty can-do gal who seems to have isolated herself simply because she felt like it, and is okay with the consequences. But, as the saying goes, if there’s no problem, there’s no play.
There are a couple of surmises one could make about the origination of this production. Joely Richardson is a well-liked, known TV name, having starred on FX’s Nip/Tuck for several seasons. There is certainly a commercial interest in involving her in the show, TV and film names being about the only reliable way to sell an Off- or on-Broadway play these days. The concept may have been to create a “new” Emily Dickinson, one without the old-school fragility and discomfort with human/male contact, a woman for the 21st century. All seems unnecessary and misguided. As stated, Richardson doesn’t seem at-ease or suited to the part. Then, manipulating the character of Emily into someone sure-footed and confident erases the thing that makes Dickinson so heart-rending and recognizable a figure. Despite the modern profession of confidence, common sense and human experience tells us that some women still have a deep-seated hesitation about men, love, and connection; we all feel threatened, to one degree or another, by close, untidy social contact, of loving and being loved, of our worth being judged in the most intimate way by someone else; many think or dream, if only temporarily, of shutting oneself away, rejecting the Other, living in a safe, protective, and pristine, if fanciful, nirvana of solitude. People, male and female, still actually flee from the mess, unconsciously sinking into or actively taking this step of isolation, though it’s rarely something deemed worth reporting in detail in modern media. So why not take the chance of showing Emily Dickinson as she was, trusting the audience to understand and identify with her? In their own way, the show’s creators seem as reticent as Emily herself.
Director Cosson doesn’t provide enough help to his actress. After receiving acclaim for piloting works such as the inventive Mr. Burns…A Post Electric Play at Playwrights Horizons, it would be hoped and expected that he would add a striking tone, a boldly modernistic touch to the text. But Richardson is left onstage alone in a bright, unblinking light throughout; there are hardly any visual shifts to aid her, to set a haunting mood or to elucidate the troubled, more unsettled, poignant aspects of the piece; she is hung out to dry. Towards the close, there is a brief attempt at a lighting effect, to illustrate Emily’s notions of “eternity.” But it is quickly withdrawn and almost seemed like a mistake in the booth, rather than a deliberate artistic choice. Sound is virtually non-existent.
And Richardson doesn’t create a significant, visceral relationship with her surroundings. If Emily was someone who kept herself cosseted inside her home for years at a time, she would have no doubt constructed a world-within-the-no-world, personal feelings towards her shawl, couch, and chairs; they would have become personages in her life. But here, the actress touches and uses the set and costume pieces by-the-book; it seems perfunctory and uninhabited. Richardson’s delivery of Dickinson’s poems are skilled; her description of the death of Emily’s father and her nephew contain real emotion. But these more moving moments seem detached from a full personal encompassment of the space, the playing area; infrequent lightning in an otherwise dark field.
Perhaps the repressed, antiquated aspect of Emily Dickinson’s story simply turned off the production team. After all, she did write:
If I can stop one Heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one Life the Aching
Or cool one Pain
Or help one fainting Robin
Unto his Nest again
I shall not live in Vain.
Sorry, but it’s a life of abnegation and service, sacrifice and devotion, Emily is describing. There’s no way to twist around it, or negate it; you have to have the courage to meet it head-on, or forget the whole thing. Without a true emotional underpinning, even the recitations of the poems grow tiresome.
The flaws in the execution tend to obscure the quality of Luce’s text. After the shaky and hoary beginning of Emily bringing the cake on stage, the work does contain intriguing elements: Emily’s relationships with her sister and father, her troubles with the publisher, thwarted love affair, confrontation with death, while delineated in a fairly standard manner, at the very least provide fodder for an absorbing story and a soulful view of a famous writer. The play may also suffer from its very innovativeness. It was one of the first of the one-person shows that have, since the 1970s, become pervasive and familiar on America’s stages. Whatever—the production doesn’t get the most out of its material.
Emily Dickinson wrote, memorably:
A great Hope fell
You heard no noise
The Ruin was within
Oh, cunning wreck that told no tale
And let no Witness in…
A not admitting of the wound
Until it grew so wide
That all my Life had entered it…
For a myriad of reasons, this production of The Belle of Amherst chooses not to offer a glimpse of the ruin within. We can’t witness the wound—life is not allowed to enter.
Emily Dickinson Death Tarot Card by Susan Yount
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including The Joy Luck Club, and in regional theater. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In 2014, he starred in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the new Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch. Currently, he is curating new work at Emerging Artists Theatre and directing the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, at the United Solo Festival in New York, with a sold-out performance October 28 and an added performance on Friday, November 7, at 9:00 p.m.