Emily Dickenson was a mid-Nineteenth Century American poet who lived her life in great obscurity. She published only about a dozen poems in her lifetime, and most of those anonymously, while retaining at least 1,800 others in a small box in her room. Discovered posthumously by her beloved sister Vinnie, those small, private poems have elevated her to a place of importance in American letters that she would never have imagined possible. Her delicate but assertive poetry challenged the restrictive propriety of contemporary poetic forms and brought her love for such natural pursuits as gardening and bird-watching to intimate contemplations of life and death, love and family, faith and morality, the divine and the “undiscovered continent” of her own imagination.
In “The Belle of Amherst” by William Luce we are invited into the Amherst home where Dickenson spent almost her entire adult life. Devoted to her father (and to a series of older men who were her mentors, “Masters” and correspondents) she returned to her parent's home from a a youthful education in a women's seminary due to ill health and became increasingly sequestered there from her early twenties on. Her real contact with the outer social world was through voluminous correspondence. When the important editor Thomas Higginson showed interest in her work and invited her to come to Boston to meet, she demurred with the declaration that “I do not cross my Father's ground to any House or town.”
It is to that splendid isolation that we are invited in this one-woman show, there to encounter and engage the complex and enigmatic Dickenson as fully embodied by Maria Glanz. In order to essay such an intellectually engaged and socially disconnected personality, Ms. Glanz must draw us very close, the intimacy of the place equal to the intimacy of her personal revelation. Inside this elegant and beautifully designed set (Craig Wollam) we are made to feel very comfortable, more comfortable being with this woman than we suspect she will ever be with anyone else. This is, in many ways, the story of a very small life lived with very great passions. Those concerns: her baking, her garden, her relationship to faith, to life and death, and above all the entirety of her existence in words, become important to us because they are the only way to know her. What Ms. Glanz accomplishes in her remarkably finished and authentic performance is to create a woman who has no artifice, no physical presentation of any consequence in contrast to her vast internal identity, the soul that inhabits this house and this world.
Because this is such quiet material, a psychic landscape of slight elevation and unexpected depth, the greatest achievement of director Teresa Thuman is the invisibility of her work in the performance. Never do we have any indication that the actress was shaped into the presentation, but rather that the woman, the poet, is simply and entirely who we are seeing. The other great challenge in this piece is keeping the themes and actions of her life urgent and immediate, especially when they are so often once removed through her writing, and so rarely connected with actual physical contact with another human being. The script beautifully blends Dickenson's actual poetry with the narrative, autobiographical voice of the poet, and in the same way Ms. Glanz seamlessly connects the reclusive artistry of the writer with the humanity of the woman.
The only other character on stage is the cellist, Brad Hawkins, whose original music is an eloquent metaphor not only for the other people in her life whom we never meet, but for the way in which Dickenson turned her real life into a beautiful, melodic literary simulacrum. Thuman manages to keep all of this ephemeral material vital and immediate, filling it with the appetite and desire that sustained the poet in her self-cloistered life and making the play dramatic and compelling for us.
This production was first mounted in January to great critical acclaim, and it has been remounted for these performances at the Center House Theatre August 6-15. On opening night the audience was far too small for the quality of this production and the eloquence and literary excellence of the script. Like Miss Dickenson, this production won't leave the house to visit you in your home, but if you make the effort to visit in hers, you'll be rewarded with the work of intriguing, substantial and moving artists attempting to answer the same question Dickenson posed to her mentor, Higginson, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?”
Of course, we know now that the verse was, indeed, alive and remains so. With “The Belle of Amherst” we also know that the theater of her life, the power of her story, is equally alive.
PICTURED ABOVE: Maria Glanz
PHOTO BY: Ken Holmes