(Firebone Theatre Website)
Emily: An Amethyst Remembrance
(Emily Dickinson Bio)
(Theatre Row Website)
410 West 42nd Street
By Chris Cragin
Directed by Steve Day
Elizabeth A. Davis as Emily
Jenny Ledel as Sue, Mrs. Dickinson
Misty Foster Venters as Vinnie, Sophia
Jared Houseman as Austin, Mr. Dickinson
Christopher Bonewitz as Newton, Mr. Williamson
Asst Director: Hayli Henderson
Stage Manager: Alyse Frosch
Asst. Stage Manager: Molly Murphy
Scenic & Lighting Design: Rachelle Beckerman
Costume Design: Victoria Depew
Sound Design: Josh Liebert
Dramaturge: Caitlin Lee
Choreographer: Kimi Nikaidoh
Technical Consultant: Sarah Kattau
Press: Katie Rosin/Kampfire Films PR
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
September 16, 2009
In backward scenes that trace the intimate world of poet, Emily Dickinson, Firebone Theatre has created a fascinating and imaginative two-act play, with minimal sets and costumes, at Theatre Row’s Kirk Theatre. Chris Cragin sets eight scenes to eight phrases from Dickinson’s poems, such as “Just a Crown”, “For the Captives”, and “A New Preceptor”. The bare small stage is set with a coat rack at the rear, with hooks for costume changes. A large country wooden door opens and closes, swings, and moves to become a table or piano, with the help of spartan wooden boxes. And, five actors, all in double roles, except Elizabeth Davis as Emily, draw the audience in with fine mastery of 19th century New England manners and attitude. This is a story of a reclusive woman, who lived through and for her natural poetic talent and her strong family relationships.
Director Steve Day instructs the four ensemble actors to exude remarkably nuanced personalities, as they delineate their dual characters. Jenny Ledel is both Emily’s frail mother, Mrs. Dickinson, and Emily’s vulnerable sister-in-law, Sue. Misty Foster Venters is both Vinnie, Emily’s strong, stoic sister, and Sophia, Emily’s soon to be deceased relative. Jared Houseman is both Emily’s alcoholic brother, Austin, and Emily’s hot-tempered father, Mr. Dickinson. Christopher Bonewitz is both Newton, Emily’s first and only love, and Mr. Williamson, Emily’s teacher, mentor, friend. Each ensemble actor not only personifies two characters, but becomes younger with each scene, chronologically 1860 to 1848, with Emily 30 years old to 18. This was a flawed concept, as Emily Dickinson as a renowned literary figure was enigmatic and reclusive, rarely leaving her home, and later even her room. The core of her story seemed hidden here, an irony.
Emily’s doors were her protective walls from the forces of society and nature. Only Vinnie (Lavinia), Emily’s younger sister, gained entrance to her mind and soul. In fact, on Emily’s death (at 55), Vinnie found 1,775 hand-written poems in brief, original form, the story of her internalized life, and they were eventually published, earning Dickinson a secure place in American literary history. Cragin’s play unpeels Emily’s obsession for privacy, both physical and professional, with her only published poems bearing her pseudonym. Her friend Newton proposed on bended knee, but Emily refused his offer, only to toss herself on his body, when he suddenly died. As Emily stood over Newton, he literally walked away, leaving his jacket on the bench, as his lasting image. This was a riveting moment, poignant and persuasive.
Another mesmerizing moment occurred with Sue’s marriage to Austin, whom we already knew would be drunk and abusive. In a later scene (earlier chronology) Emily leaves Holyoke Seminary (which became Mount Holyoke College), even though her father was well connected. The family dynamics unfolded seamlessly, but I would have preferred a deeper exploration of Dickinson’s personality and persona in natural progression of time. Although each actor found a level of depth through nuanced gesture, posture, and affect, it would have been more intellectually satisfying to learn more about this conflicted Massachusetts family in Amherst. Cragin weaves Dickinson’s poems into the dialogue, with actors reciting phrases in solo or ensemble effect. It was difficult to hear the words, with actors speaking in start-stop fashion. I would suggest the poems be recited by better projected solo characters.
Elizabeth Davis, with dark hair pulled back, parted in the middle, exudes just the right balance of detachment and yearning. She captures the imagination, but, again, I would have liked to know so much more through the lens of a natural timeline. Christopher Bonewitz, as Newton and Mr. Williamson, is an actor to watch, who created a textured performance, and Jared Houseman moved with an arrogant posture as Austin, in courting Sue and at their ill-fated wedding, as well as a fiery authoritarianism as Mr. Dickinson. Jenny Ledel switched to the youthful, budding Sue, after playing the ill, lonely-looking Mrs. Dickinson. Misty Foster Venters’ Sophia was an early enigmatic figure, but her vibrant, supportive Vinnie was also caring, even as the younger sister. Steve Day kept the action uncluttered, like Rachelle Beckerman’s sets and Cragin’s dialogue. On arriving home, I immediately researched Emily Dickinson, so I was obviously inspired.
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