November 12, 2014

"The Belle of Amherst" is Far Too Modest

The playwright William Luce has made a career out of writing one-person shows about famous literary women from Isak Dinesen to Lillian Hellman but his most famous creation is certainly The Belle of Amherst, a play about the poet Emily Dickinson that he wrote back in 1976 for Julie Harris and for which she famously won her fifth Tony Award.

Harris toured the play for years and even did it for PBS but I somehow never saw it and so I was intrigued when I heard that Joely Richardson was going to brave the first major New York revival in 38 years. But my theatergoing buddy Bill begged off on the grounds that he didn’t want to mess with the memory of having seen Harris in the role. 

I’m afraid I have to say that even though I didn’t seen Harris, neither I nor this current incarnation of the play, which is running at the Westside Theatre through Nov. 23, could shake the presence of that singular actress who died last year at the age of 87.
This is not to say that Richardson embarrasses herself. A scion of the famous Redgrave acting dynasty (Vanessa is her mom) she acquits herself gracefully and she looks beautiful in the lovely 19th century dresses that William Ivey Long has designed for her (click here to read a Q&A with her). 

But perhaps that’s the problem. I was never convinced that Richardson was the outwardly mousy and inwardly passionate woman that legend—and her worksuggests that Dickinson was.

The conceit of Luce’s play is that the members of the audience are visiting the home in Amherst, Mass. that the 53-year-old Dickinson, who would die three years later, shared with her sister Lavinia.

Luce's Emily not only welcomes the audience, brandishing a cake she’s baked and sharing her special recipe, but takes it into her confidences, explaining that the eccentricities for which she’s known (dressing all in white, seldom leaving the house) are deliberately cultivated, sharing the pains of her unconsummated loves and reciting lines from some of the more famous of the1,800 poems she wrote, only a handful of which were published before her death.

The Belle of Amherst, which runs nearly two hours, hits most of the major events of Dickinson’s not-all-that-eventful life but not much happens. So its success depends entirely on the actor’s ability to draw you in with her charm and then to alarm you with the ferocity of Dickinson’s thoughts about life, death and the afterlife.

Richardson is better at the charm than the alarm.  I think I might have enjoyed her more in a show about a less ethereal woman, maybe someone like Edna St. Vincent Millay.

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