Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Poetry Reigns in “The Belle of Amherst” in Sierra Madre
I once heard someone refer to Emily Dickinson as “the Vincent Van Gogh of American poetry”. By this, I assume, the speaker was making a correlation between the two as having been dismissed artistically in their own lifetimes, yet become highly celebrated in the more modern era. Certainly, the increasingly reclusive Dickinson, who wrote over 1000 poems and created phrases that even those who don’t think they know her work are familiar with, was ignorable in her own time in part because her poetry didn’t follow the elements expected from a poet in that period, and partly (it must be said) because she was female.
All of which is covered in William Luce’s now-classic one-woman play “The Belle of Amherst,” currently at Sierra Madre Playhouse. There, Ferrell Marshall has taken on the story of Dickinson with a generous understanding of what her poetry has to say, and the heart of the woman behind all those now-familiar words. Directed by Todd Nielsen to balance this treasure trove of verbiage with enough action to keep the hearer engaged, the play works well to both charm and and instruct.
This has been a lifelong dream for Marshall, who has been a fan of Dickinson’s work since she was quite young. That sense of dedication shows, as Luce’s script balances a combination of emotion, story-telling, and the integration of poetry into narration, to create a solid portrait of a particular artistic soul: the good daughter of a Victorian, if loving, father whose emotions were splayed on paper in ways they could not be uttered in real life. Though physically quite different from her subject, whose self-characterizations indicate she was quite petite, Marshall has a sense of quietness in her portrayal, balancing Emily’s wit and her darkness in ways which make her works make sense and her poetry sing.
Also worthy of note is the constant reference made to others outside the house Dickinson intentionally made into a fortress, especially friends from her school years, and former neighbor Helen Hunt Jackson, who was perhaps the best known American woman writer of her day. Indeed, Jackson’s pithy commentary in her letters to Emily, as a woman making her living by writing, makes a neat balance to Dickinson’s more internal art.
As for the production itself, the set dressings – furniture, photographs, and such – evoke the era and class of this poet, placed on a set left amorphous enough to handle this show and “A Wrinkle in Time,” with which it in repertory. To this are added occasional projections which celebrate Dickinson’s love of her gardens, turning the flowers she wrote of into what feels like wallpaper. Marshall’s single costume evokes a sense of period, though lacking in some of its specifics. Still, the net result sets one in the proper atmosphere to enjoy the backstory and the written words of a woman who – according to Luce – coveted her own mysterious image a bit, and yet longed for connections she considered herself too plain to ever acquire.
In short, “The Belle of Amherst,” in the person of Marshall, is worth a look. Come ready to sit and listen, for this is a quiet tale, told without elaborate flourishes. It is, however, a telling look into the person behind such poetry as “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me…” or “Hope is a thing with feathers…” and perhaps rediscover what poetry can do that prose cannot.
“The Belle of Amherst” plays in repertory with “A Wrinkle in Time”.
What: “The Belle of Amherst” When: through April 23, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $30 general, $27 seniors, $20 youth (13-21), $17 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org