MARSHFIELD – Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was considered by American literary critic Harold Bloom to be alongside Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot and Hart Crane as one of the American’s greatest poets. Yet her life was reclusive and enigmatic – making for a fascinating character.
“The Belle of Amherst,” William Luce’s one-woman show created from letters and poems, paints a compelling picture of this unusual woman. Broadway and TV actress Marla Schaffel is building an irresistible portrait of Dickinson in The Mirror Theater production-in-progress, which opened at the Unadilla Festival Theatre Thursday and runs through Sunday.
The original Broadway production, directed by Charles Nelson Reilly and starring Julie Harris, opened April 28, 1976 at the Longacre Theatre, where it ran for 116 performances. Set in the Dickinson family Amherst, Massachusetts home, the play employs her work, diaries, and letters to recreate encounters with the significant people in her life.
Dickinson biographer Lyndall Gordon suggested the play perpetuates the hermit-like image of Dickinson, portrayed by Dickinson’s brother’s mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, as opposed to the witty, provocative, and sometimes erotic Dickinson of her work and known to those who knew her more personally.
Still, the Dickinson of “The Belle of Amherst” is no shrinking violet, with frank discussions of everything from her rejection of religion to her most powerful sexual attraction for a married man. The tale reveals much of the deeper side of the poet as well as her scathing wit, and includes many of her unique poems.
Watching Schaffel invite the audience into Dickinson’s life felt real, and it took a while to realize that the she was still “on-book,” sometimes consulting the script. There was the warmth of the invitation into her home, all the while mocking her own silly habits. She painted a witty but feeling life in the Dickinson household.
Schaffel’s retelling of the poet’s unfortunate experiences at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (later Mount Holyoke) College were hilarious as she and headmistress Lyons fought over religion.
Schaffel reflected Dickinson’s nervous excitement at her first attempt at publication, when sending her poems in response to the literary critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s blanket invitation, and her utter devastation at meeting him much later. Quite surprisingly, the sexual desire was palpable at Dickinson’s first and subsequent meetings with the famed Philadelphia minister Charles Wadsworth.
Still, Dickinson’s greatest emotions were reserved for her family, both the joy of their lives and the trauma at their deaths. Without ever becoming maudlin, this joy and pain were delivered in a deeply felt way.
Directed by Sabra Jones, Mirror Theater’s (and Greensboro Arts Alliance & Residency) producing artistic director, Schaffel has created a fully dimensional Dickinson. When she discards the script, it should become even more penetrating and entertaining. Jones hopes to take the production on tour.
Unadilla Festival Theatre, designed for Chekhov productions, proved a good home for “Belle of Amherst,” with staging by Victoria Whooper and lighting by Unadilla’s Lori Stratton.
It was a real pleasure to spend an evening with Emily Dickinson.