The Belle of Amherst
“How was the play?” my son-in-law, the family sports, poker and comics buff, asked.
“Good,” I said, “but two hours of Emily Dickinson wouldn’t be your style.”
“Parting is all we know of heaven and all we need of hell,” he said. Poem 96 of her 1800 published posthumously. He knew it by heart. You could have knocked me over with a fountain pen, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. Dickinson’s poetry is accessible and enduring, personal yet universal, precise and evocative.
So why was the house only half full? Because people (maybe you?) assume it’s not for them. They’re wrong. This show will appeal to anyone with emotion and ears to hear.
Kathryn Kelley is a natural in this production of William Luce’s critically acclaimed The Belle of Amherst, a show that has already earned Bay Theatre its fourth Helen Hayes Award nomination of the season. Seamlessly blending poems with monologue, Kelley addresses themes such as love (The heart wants what it wants), passion (Wild Nights), disappointment (A great hope fell), difficult families (Hold your parents tenderly), and death (is an old friend of mine).
I’m the only one left without hope, declares the spinster, the recluse, the local character of Civil War Massachusetts. Yet people today can still relate. By turns bubbly and blue, loud and subdued, impish and serious, Kelley/Dickinson glides from giddy 15-year-old to middle-aged domestic.
Dickinson was a bird lover (Hope is the thing with feathers), and Kelley is birdlike in her mannerisms as she describes how it feels to be both the object of curiosity and the voyeur behind the lace curtain. A quiet child and sacrilegious mimic who insisted on reading everything (naughty words and all), she engages in simulated conversations with family, friends, servants, tutors and suitors to arrive at an understanding of humanity. From her great lost love, the Rev. Dr. Charles Wadsworth, to her professional correspondent and friend, the literary critic Thomas Higginson, Dickinson catalogues her hurts and concludes that life is over there behind the shelf the sexton keeps the key to.
Bay Theatre Company’s set is a close reproduction of Dickinson’s bedroom, its tiny desk near full to uselessness with a hurricane lamp and stacked books, all containing her workspace the way she contained her life. Pacing, she changes aprons and shawls over her trademark white shift, and the lighting changes enhance her moods: indigo when she’s feisty, lovelorn lavender, a hopeful robin’s egg blue, while her soundtrack ranges from piano to folk.
This show is pure brain food and therapy, perfectly suited to spring. Don’t miss this remarkable biography of a great American literary treasure.\
Director: Jerry Whiddon. Set: Ken Sheats. Lights: John Burkland. Costumes: Christina McAlpine.
Playing thru May 6 at 8pm ThFSa; 2pm Su at Bay Theatre Company, 275 West St., Annapolis. $35-$45: 410-268-1333; www.baytheatre.org.