The Belle of Amherst
By William Luce
407 West 43rd Street
Directed by Steve Cosson
Scenic Design: Antje Ellermann
Costume Design: William Ivey Long
Lighting Design: David Weiner
Sound Design: Daniel Kluger
Advertising: DR Advertising
Marketing: Leann Schanzer Promotions, Inc.
General Management: DR Theatrical Management
Production Supervisor: Production Core
Production Stage Manager: JP Elins
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
November 7, 2014
In 2009 I reviewed a lovely Off-Broadway play about Emily Dickinson at Theatre Row, with Dickinson’s family and a few acquaintances represented by an ensemble. Tonight’s performance of William Luce’s one-woman show, The Belle of Amherst, performed by Joely Richardson, who was courageously onstage, in spite of a bad cold (constantly turning her back to make use of modern-day Kleenex), was less satisfying or meaningful. Dickinson’s poems are poignant and lovely (a 1924 publication of her poems counts 597), e.g., “The Daisy follows soft the sun…”, and “Proud of my broken heart since thou didst break it…”. She was a recluse, but Ms. Richardson plays her as a gregarious host, as if the play were a Victorian talk and cooking show, as tonight’s actor gives recipes for black cake and such. Moreover, Ms. Richardson’s articulation is hardly Massachusetts-born (as is this writer), too husky and rushed. William Ivey Long’s ankle-length, white starchy dress is requisite Dickinson, as noted in the 2010 Botanical Garden show about Dickinson’s gardens, poems, and memorabilia.
At times Ms. Richardson speaks of the natural world outside her home, her family, neighbors, and her desires. But there was little that informed the listener, as the play was extremely verbose (two acts, where one would have sufficed), and what attracted the eye was David Weiner’s shifting lighting, as day became night, and what attracted the ear was Daniel Kluger’s sound design, with chirping crickets and other natural effects. Antje Ellermann’s Victorian set was transporting, with wallpaper, ladies chair, and scattered tables and fireplace. This was too airy to exemplify Emily’s eternal, sequestered, literary workshop. The 2009 play was far more historically biographical, as Mr. Luce’s play is more breezy entertainment, one might say literary-light, with regards to Ms. Dickinson’s oeuvres. Ms. Richardson exuded an eagerness to bond with the audience, and Westside Theatre lends itself to such fourth wall-bonding, but at one point she tells the audience she loves them as if each person were a poem. This was when she and Mr. Luce finally lost me. In essence, Steve Cosson’s direction created an Emily Dickinson that was a hyper, egocentric, young woman, too aggressive and self-flattering for the internalized, sensitive poet that she was known to have been, especially in 1883, at the age of 53. However, following the theater, I was drawn to explore a few Dickinson poems.