With all the effort it takes to get students simply to show up for class, do schools even teach poetry any longer? Does the current crop of K-12 get any exposure to meter and verse that isn’t contained in a rap song? Do they have any inkling who Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde or T. S. Eliot are? Are they capable of quoting a single salacious couplet in an attempt to get laid?
Given the presumed lack of attention to things poetical by the younger generation, a play like The Belle of Amherst becomes monumentally important. Written by William Luce, whose body of work seems centered on celebrating specific artists — Moliere in Baptiste, Charlotte Bronte in Bronte, John Barrymore in Barrymore and Lillian Hellman in Lillian — The Belle of Amherst gives its lucky audience the chance to spend an evening with Emily Dickinson, and it is an evening not soon forgotten.
In the course of its fleet running time, The Belle of Amherst recounts Dickinson’s life as a society girl in 19th-century Massachusetts, an eccentric recluse, a loving daughter and sister and one of America’s most celebrated (albeit posthumously) poets. This one-woman play overflows with wit and wisdom, and it is a credit to the playwright that it is often impossible to tell where Dickinson’s words end and Luce’s begin.
Miners Alley Playhouse in Golden notches another resounding victory with The Belle of Amherst. Choosing to produce this somewhat obscure play in the first place was a masterstroke. Casting the talented, award-winning Paige L. Larson as Dickinson was another genius move. Giving her a simple yet beautifully appropriate set on which to perform (all credit to Director Rick Bernstein, Scenic Designer Richard H. Pegg and furniture provider Beki Pineda) is the icing on the cake.
Larson’s transformation into Dickinson is nothing short of miraculous. Her commitment to the role allows her to transcend it and produces the perfect illusion for the audience, which gets to learn about and celebrate Dickinson’s life by seemingly hearing about it from the woman’s own lips. From its first lines, The Belle of Amherst plays like a visit with an old friend rather than a history lesson or homage, and it is this increased intimacy that elevates the play to such rare heights.
Larson deserves much praise for her work here. She not only brings Dickinson to life, but though alone on stage throughout, she successfully conjures many of Dickinson’s family and acquaintances in two-sided, singleactor conversations. She bring out the sly humor not always associated with Dickinson and, just as credibly, conveys the deep sadness that was just as much a part of her life.
The Emily Dickinson of The Belle of Amherst dazzles with her diversity. She refers to a local gossip as looking like “a jar of sweetmeats.” She lovingly shares photographs of her family. She hints that her perennial wearing of white might have been a conscious choice to amuse and befuddle rather than an expression of neurosis. She acknowledges without truly explaining her nearly lifelong agoraphobic tendencies. She talks candidly about her suspicion of religion. In short, she manifests as a real person rather than as a historical oddity.
There are only a handful of performances left of The Belle of Amherst (and this is true only because the opening was pushed back due to an unexpected and unwelcome waterrelated catastrophe affecting the building that houses Miners Alley’s theatre). Whether you know anything about Dickinson or have any interest in poetry, this is a play that you really should see. As a piece of theatre, it is nearly flawless. As an extended afternoon tea with a captivating figure from American history, it is divine.