Review: “The Belle of Amherst”

Kate Fry in a scene from Belle of Amherst – Michael Brosilow


Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
When: through Dec. 3
Tickets: $50-$68
Phone: 773-753-4472

Theater Critic

Kate Fry is on the short list of actors I’d go see no matter what they’re in, and as Emily Dickinson in William Luce’s one-woman 1976 “The Belle of Amherst” at Court Theatre, she certainly doesn’t disappoint.

Fry is luminous from the moment she takes the stage and stops in her tracks, surprised but not distressed to find she has an audience. This attitude may belie preconceptions we have about the famously reclusive poet, and that’s the point I think she and director Sean Graney are trying to make. As Dickinson divulges details like the fact that she’s 53 at this point (two years before her death) and has had seven poems published, we realize that she longs for recognition at the same time as she’s decided to remain secluded from the world.

Dickinson also whips up her renowned black cake, recounting the recipe as she goes and pouring the batter into a huge pot she places in the oven of an old stove (though not as old as it should be for the period; she died in 1886). Her love of baking and gardening are among the domestic threads Luce explores, along with her relationship with her family, especially her stern but caring father, her beloved brother, Austin, and her younger sister, Lavinia or Vinnie, who also remained a spinster and lived with Emily at the Homestead, their family home in Amherst.

Bopping back and forth in time with some attention to chronology and interweaving some of Dickinson’s many poems and excerpts from her letters and diaries, Luce paints a portrait of a woman who is witty, thoughtful, eccentric, and has a great appetite and appreciation for life, as well as a determination to live it her own way no matter what anyone might say. Fry runs the gamut of emotions as she recounts her youthful experiences at Amherst Academy and, briefly, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, including her unrequited crush on a young man.

Older men seem to have the greatest influence on her as an adult, especially Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the literary critic, abolitionist, and ex-minister whose piece for The Atlantic Monthly, “Letter to a Young Contributor,” inspires her to start up a correspondence with him in the hopes of getting her work published. She refers to him as her “preceptor” and “master.” Though he eventually comes to Amherst to meet her, he’s very critical of her poems, and her aspirations are dashed.

Many of Dickinson’s poems are about death, immortality, and eternity, and as the play progresses, the mood darkens. Fry conveys the shifting tone subtly, describing the losses of loved ones—her parents, a favorite nephew—along the way. She’s so effective, we almost feel like we can see them, whether they ever were actually there or she just corresponded with them.

Graney’s staging does a good job of capturing Dickinson’s and the play’s dichotomies. Arnel Sancianco’s scenic design features a pristine, sparely furnished, white bedroom within the cutaway shell of a decaying mansion that has unruly vines covering the window, in contrast to Emily’s neatly potted plants. As the poet recounts her story, Mike Durst’s lighting turns the bedroom—in which she spent much of her later years—different colors to reflect the mood. She also tells us, early on, that she chose to dress all in white, partly to annoy her nosy neighbors, and Samantha Jones’ period costumes are suitably simple but beautifully crafted. The only “off” element is the incidental music, which sometimes is intrusive.

Of course, Luce’s approach has limitations. No matter how much Fry’s Dickinson talks about her love of words and goes through the process of carefully choosing them, or animatedly recounts anecdotes about her past, or disabuses us of the notion that she’s a “crackpot,” the playwright can never bring her inner life to life, which is what he seems to be trying to do, given that relatively little happens on the surface.

But even if we don’t learn what Emily Dickinson was really like from “The Belle of Amberst,” Kate Fry offers a most engaging approximation.