Review: Emily Dickinson comes out of the shadows

October 20, 2014 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) — Acclaimed 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson was famously reclusive, although she maintained numerous correspondences. She was an extremely prolific poet, though not publicly recognized in her lifetime, and many details of her life remain a mystery.

William Luce dramatized Dickinson’s homebound life by combining details from biographies, her poetry and her letters into an entrancing one-woman show, “The Belle of Amherst,” that he wrote for the gifted and versatile Julie Harris in 1976.

Joely Richardson breathes new life into Dickinson with an impish, high-spirited enactment in the engaging revival that opened Sunday night at off-Broadway’s Westside Theatre. Playing a 53-year-old Dickinson with aplomb, Richardson chats to the audience as if she were confiding in a guest for tea at the family home in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Taking much artistic license, Luce combined portions of Dickinson’s poetry with retellings of significant moments in her life. Rather than portray all the other characters, Richardson enacts only Dickinson’s side of her conversations with family members, good friends and the occasional visitor. The 100-minute play is filled with almost nonstop complex, lyrical dialogue and poetry.


Dickinson’s love of words and her bemused observations shine throughout the dialogue. “I look at words as if they were entities, sacred beings. There are words to which I lift my hat when I see them sitting on a page,” she informs a visitor early in the play, and thereafter several times repeats merrily, “Now there’s a word to lift your hat to.”

Richardson, best known for television work including “Nip/Tuck,” begins as a mischievous Emily under the direction of Steve Cosson, artistic director of The Civilians and recent director of “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play.”

The first act is a little tame, though always entertaining, with Dickinson strongwilled yet frequently girlish. The melodrama heats up in the second act, when an important visitor greatly disappoints and a beloved relative dies, and Richardson shows increasing depth and maturity to her characterization.

Richardson is frequently in motion, darting busily around the stage; though she’s always alone, we never have the sense that she’s talking to herself.

The conversation ranges from philosophical subjects, like religion and immortality, to practical jokes and recipes for cake, with Richardson conveying shades of emotional fragility combined with a true zest for life that Dickinson revealed through her writings.