Celebrating The Spirit Of An Illustrious Poet In ‘The Belle Of Amherst’
In a way, the fact that “The Belle Of Amherst” is even being performed in its full glory is a triumph to be celebrated, a welcome indication of live theatre’s return after a long intermission in which an earlier incarnation of this production was relegated to streaming. And there’s certainly much to enjoy in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ in-person rendering of this one-woman show by William Luce, which stars accomplished area actress Margery Lowe as acclaimed poet Emily Dickinson.
The title, as well as referencing the youthful Emily’s fanciful imaginings of herself becoming the most sought-after beauty in her small Massachusetts town, also references the reputation she developed after her death as a figure of great fascination due to the combination of her extreme talent and her eccentric and highly solitary nature—in her later years, Dickinson not only barely left her house but in fact barely even left her room.
This, at least in theory, made a one woman show a perfect choice to explore the life of the legendary poetess, and Lowe is certainly a more-than-perfect pick for the part. Onstage, the actress balances sensitivity and exuberance to create a compelling portrayal of Dickinson’s often contradictory nature—including of the fact that her self-imposed seclusion is less a rejection of life than a reaction to the fact that the intensity with which she approaches it can often be too much for even her to bear.
Dickinson’s profound love of words and dedication to her craft also comes through quite strongly, and the play’s dialogue contains many of her poems, including not only greatest hits like “I’m Nobody” and “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” but a variety of lesser known gems, which Lowe is able to deliver with a remarkably natural cadence as the verse blends into Dickinson’s everyday speech.
But while I certainly found a lot to relate to and empathize with in Dickinson’s life story, both as a fellow writer and as a frequent fellow loner, I also can’t help but wonder if an examination of isolation that may have made for a welcome balm during the pandemic is almost a peculiar pick for its immediate afterward, when so many of us are eager to put the last two years of distancing behind us and instead embrace tales that offer more togetherness.
Despite Loewe’s consistently vibrant presence and continual efforts by director William Hayes to enliven the proceedings by incorporating as many emotional and physical dynamics as the script allows, the solitude that allowed for Dickinson to create her remarkable ouvre isn’t exactly something that inherently lends itself to great theatre. Though a set by Michael Amico that gives Lowe’s Dickinson plenty to interact with and the occasionally stunning shift of Kirk Bookman’s lighting also help break up the monotony, Luce’s script itself remained a consistent impediment to engagement.
Though “The Belle Of Amherst”’s storytelling is effective in creating a nuanced portrait of Dickinson and an overview of her life, it does so without putting much effort to draw viewers in with its narrative twists and turns. While elements like the outcome of Dickinson’s submission to a writing contest or of her correspondence with a potential lover do make for some fleeting suspense, there are long stretches of more meandering monologues before and betwixt these dilemmas that make the play as a whole somewhat hard to swallow, especially given its relatively long 2.5 hour run time.
As a thorough window into Dickinson’s life, it’s almost sure to please fans of the poet, but may be less amenable to the casual theatergoer—I can imagine a shorter or one-act version being far less mentally taxing. Thus, though I would call this play more interesting and thought-provoking of a venture than some of the less dense and showier material that’s crossed my theatregoing path lately, I would probably have to rate it as moment to moment less enjoyable.
But then again, perhaps the dark undertones of Dickinson’s story make it an inherently hard one to enjoy. Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of moving lessons to found in “The Belle of Amherst” about the pleasures of being true to one’s self and one passions even absent outside approval, as well as about appreciating the simple things and enduring times of hardship, which is perhaps what made it such an obvious pandemic pick. But in an era less dominated by COVID, I also can’t help but view it as a sort of cautionary tale about the loss that can come with refusing to compromise and with letting the hands of time pass you by.
In the end, though, the fact that Dickinson’s work was eventually brought to light and her brilliance enjoyed by countless readers, exactly as she yearned for, is what keeps hers from being a thoroughly sad as opposed to merely bittersweet story. One can only imagine that the poet herself would be pleased to see “The Belle Of Amherst” bring both her work and her spirit to life as it brings joy to whatever audiences get the chance to pass through Dramaworks’ doors before the show ends its run on this coming June 5th!