There’s much to enjoy in The Belle of Amherst
By William Luce. A Presentation House Theatre presentation on Wednesday, May 11. Continues until May 21
“This is my letter to the world that never wrote to me,” declares 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst. It’s a long, somewhat shapeless letter, but it contains many beautiful passages.
William Luce’s 1976 script, whose text is drawn largely from Dickinson’s poems and letters, opens with a nervous but playful Emily welcoming the audience and sharing a cake recipe. Dickinson’s reclusiveness and eccentricity made her notorious in her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, in her lifetime, but according to Luce’s script, it was all just an act: “I enjoy the game. I do it on purpose,” she tells us.
Whether or not this portrait is factually accurate, it makes Emily an entertaining host, whose feistiness translates into memorable quips. “She’d even intimidate the Antichrist,” she remarks of a neighbour, and describes a formidable aunt as “the only male relative on the female side”.
Engaging as the character is, the visit begins to drag as the script fails to accumulate dramatic tension. Because Emily is alone on-stage, recalling significant events in her life in roughly chronological order, nothing is ever at stake for very long. The one exception comes more than halfway through the play, with Emily’s account of her visit from literary critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson, with whom she has been corresponding for eight years by the time they first meet face to face. Confident that Higginson will want to publish her poems, Emily expects the meeting to be a major step on the road to fame; when he rebuffs her, she is devastated.
Solo performer Renée Bucciarelli shines in this passage, bustling about in anticipation of Higginson’s arrival, rehearsing laughing at his jokes, talking a mile a minute when he arrives, and retreating into a crushed stillness when it’s clear that Higginson doesn’t understand or appreciate her work. Throughout the play, Bucciarelli deftly captures Emily’s mischievous spirit, but her range is somewhat limited: she repeats the same faraway look and declamatory hand gestures whenever the script shifts her into a recitation of one of Dickinson’s poems. A director might have helped Bucciarelli create more nuance, but there’s none credited for this production (only a coach, Melissa Haller).
Still, there’s much to enjoy here on a purely linguistic level, and Bucciarelli clearly relishes the words of the woman whose poems “tell all the truth but tell it slant”.