Play: The Belle of Amherst
Group: Insight Theatre Company
Venue: Heaney Theatre, Nerinx Hall High School campus
Dates: Show has concluded
Story: Set in her comfortable, ancestral New England home, The Belle of Amherst tells the story of 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson from 1845, when she was 15, until her death in 1886. Playwright William Luce fills the two acts with anecdotes and observations by the noted and innovative writer, who lived a rather reclusive existence in Amherst, Massachusetts with her parents, younger sister and younger brother, who eventually married and had three children of his own. The drama recounts several of the people who played parts, both major and minor, in Dickinson’s cloistered life.
Highlights: Luce specializes in thorough, one-character works that test the mettle and memorization abilities of their performers, as is the case with this effort, which garnered a Best Actress Tony Award for Julie Harris in its brief run on Broadway in 1976. Veteran local actress Susie Wall is more than a match for the formidable assignment in Insight Theatre Company’s local production, which concluded a two-week run on October 11.
Director Maggie Ryan wisely selected the talented Wall to bring the words of the gifted Dickinson to life in an endearing portrayal. Wall shrewdly captured the essence of the proud New Englander, showing her vulnerability and fragility as well as surprising strength and sauciness. Indeed, some of the show’s more interesting moments are revelations about Dickinson’s spicy relationships with some prim and proper married men of her community.
Other Info: James Ryan’s set design handsomely recreates the stately Dickinson family home, from a cozy fireplace to a nicely appointed serving area to a copy of the latest whizbang technology of the era, a device that allows Dickinson to more fully observe pictures of the Mona Lisa (“I don’t see what all the fuss is about”) and European geographic highlights. Kimberly Klearman’s lighting fills the background with various hues, Garth Dunbar provided Wall’s appropriate period dresses and Tori Meyer added the soft sound design. Duane Bridges composed the delicate original music to accompany the presentation.
While Wall’s portrayal was excellent and precisely measured, Insight’s presentation may have conveyed why the original Broadway production ran just 116 performances. When all is said and too little is done, The Belle of Amherst is fairly static, with little dramatic power. It’s overly delicate material probably best appreciated by devotees of finely polished acting, such as Wall’s rendition, but not exactly invigorating to others who perhaps may observe Dickinson’s painfully quiet life without being drawn in to any dramatic possibilities. It’s more a curio piece for the Dickinson home than a powerful theatrical offering.
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.