“The Belle of Amherst,” which is being presented at the Two River Theater in Red Bank through May 5, represents, via the work of actress Maureen Silliman, an impressive feat of acting. To memorize two hours of stream-of-consciousness musings — and then deliver it all in a natural, seamless way — seems to me to be as daunting a task as building a television set from scratch.
“The Belle of Amherst” is a one-woman play about the poet Emily Dickinson — a two-hour monologue (broken up by an intermission) that regularly shifts from casually chatty to deeply philosophical, then back again, punctuated with excerpts from Dickinson’s poetry. Dickinson is basically telling us her life story, with lots of digressions, as if we were guests who just happened to drop by her warm, welcoming, earth-toned living room.
William Luce used Dickinson’s diaries and letters, as well as her poetry, to write this play, which premiered on Broadway in 1976. It starred Julie Harris, who won a Tony for her work and, later, starred in touring productions of the play as well.
I feel, though, that while Luce should be applauded for helping to make people aware of Dickinson (1830-1866) and her poetry, he failed to write a truly compelling play.
Maybe no one could have. Dickinson led what most people would call an uneventful life. At the start of the play, she says she’s 53 (she died at 55) and has only gotten seven of her poems published, anonymously. She hasn’t left her house for years and is quite happy to be known, locally, as “Squire Edward Dickinson’s half-cracked daughter.”
“I enjoy the game … The white dress, the seclusion. It’s all deliberate,” she tells the audience.
She recounts incidents in her life that didn’t really go anywhere: A meeting with a literary critic who could have boosted her career, but didn’t; a love affair that stopped before it got going. She shows an impish sense of humor, and talks about a lot of inconsequential things like her recipe for black cake (a kind of fruitcake).
Of course, she also talks about writing, and this is when the play really comes alive.
“I look at words as if they were entities, sacred beings,” she says. “There are words to which I lift my hat when I see them sitting on the page. Sometimes I write one … ‘Circumference’ … and I look at its outlines until it starts to glow brighter than any sapphire.”
There is, in other words, an excitement and a satisfaction that she got from writing, that she didn’t get from her actual life. That’s interesting, in some ways. But it also makes her a problematic subject for a play about a woman talking about her life. And Silliman, as good as she is, can only take this material so far.
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