By Bill Hirschman
There’s a profound moment in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ The Belle of Amherst capturing the complexity of an artist whose precious work, for all she knows, may never be seen or appreciated.
Emily Dickinson, suddenly struck with an inspiration, snatches a piece of paper, pens a recently-discovered phrase from her soul, then blows on the ink to dry it. And then she lifts the paper to her lips and blows the words out into the space, not a gift to any reader, but to the universe.
Congruently at another point when a publisher has rejected her cherished submissions, she mourns, then recovers and says, “My business is to sing! What difference does it make if no one listens?”
There are a score of such moving moments revealing Emily not as the reclusive constricted old maid you perceived in 10th grade American Lit class about this 19th century poet, but as a deeply passionate and joy-radiating genius who can gently skewer pretension with self-deprecating humor.
Acclaimed actress Margery Lowe in a bravura tour de force and director William Hayes create a benchmark celebration of theater using William Luce’s play. They make Emily a vibrant, witty, independent thinker so engaging that you want to adopt her as your new best friend.
In this one-woman play, Lowe and Hayes deliver a far more multi-faceted and thoroughly engaging portrait than that of the fragile, naïve, hermit with little social experience perpetuated through much of the last century.
This Emily brims with life, making wry comments about neighbors who see her as the town eccentric, relating her early experience as a pithy rebel, demonstrating her peace with choices she has made to seclude herself in her home, and depicting her visceral need to express herself in poetry as some people need oxygen to breathe.
Lowe, with her copper-colored hair drawn back into a bun, seems born to resurrect from the dead the spirit of this far-more-complicated poet.
The premise is the audience is a surprise visitor to Emily’s home, strangers whom she welcomes warmly. In between sharing a cake recipe, she delivers wry observations about her fellow citizens who never quite know what to make of her. She wryly imitates a local clergyman who wheezes when he lectures.
When Lowe’s Emily genially chats with us, words from her poems and letters flow smoothly as if everyone spoke in unequaled phraseology in everyday conversation.
But her patter slips from gossip to character revealing memories of her past. After succeeding insights into her need to write, finally she offers almost confessional passages about her view of God, and meditations on death, especially the unknowability of life after death, but eventually coming to terms with it.
Film and theater creators long have been frustrated in truly capturing the interior process of creative artists, but here Lowe, Hayes and Luce have Emily stop in mid-conversation upon discovering a phrase or word, then impulsively ripping a strip out of a newspaper or snatch an errant piece of paper to write it down.
This Emily’s love of words – a true profound love – comes across as she discovers a word like “phosphorescence” and dissects it vocally syllable by syllable as if she was savoring the flavor of a rare chocolate. Lowe savors the very sound of a procession of consonants and vowels inside words that catch her fancy.
Lowe played Dickinson for Dramaworks’ 2018 Edgar and Emily. But the tone of that play and the characterizations were intentionally fantasy and comic as the dead Edgar Allan Poe visits Ms. Dickinson. This is totally different.
Anyone patronizing South Florida theater for more than a couple of years has seen Lowe’s ability to disappear into a wide range of roles. To make this evening remain involving, she courageously invested herself completely to deliver a never-ending variety of elevated emotions.
Among the accomplishments is how Lowe makes Emily’s black and white words from that required lit text come alive with passion and intensity.
One of the most memorable ways Hayes and Lowe underscore Emily’s vibrancy and passion is the physicality: Emily’s vocabulary of body language includes her arms and hands in constant motion. In one key scene, she sinks to her knees, her arms clutching heavenward, her head rocked back and her spine curved back in an arc.
She rarely stood stock still. Her arms in triple-draped sleeves were active, shooting out and up for emphasis; her head cocked at more angles than you might think possible. Her facial expressions were amplified by a wide, thin mouth that exposed a warm smile of playfulness one moment, then curled into a dry riposte, then descended into a pained frown.
And if there ever was a case for the difference between live in-person theater and the most expertly captured film of a live performance viewed on a computer screen, this is it. This is the same group of artists who filmed two live performances of this play in an empty theater in March 2021. It was Hayes’ fully successful experiment in his belief that online theater offers regional companies a possible new outlet.
But the ability to be in the room as Hayes’ moves Emily across from bedroom to sitting room to writing room to the lip of the stage, or to see Emily pointing directly to an audience member in conversation, or to see the brilliant changes in lighting, or another half-dozen aspects – live theater wins this one in every category.
Hayes guides the tone morphing by millimeters over the evening. Early on, Dickinson is the welcoming entertaining host sharing that cake recipe. By the end, she has revealed soul-crippling incidents such as a mentor’s life-changing rejection of her work to the profound love for a pastor expressed in correspondence but realized only in two face-to-face meetings.
William Luce’s oft-produced 1976 script is best known as a vehicle for Julie Harris on stage and on PBS, but Lowe and Hayes created their own distinct vision invigorated with controlled energy.
Despite Lowe’s never-flagging energy and commitment, Luce has Emily regularly veer off into more mundane subjects and only mildly revealing past events, then return to glorious matters, then back to the mundane, flitting back and forth through time as well like a bee pollinating a flower bed. Bottom line: A good dramaturg could cut 15 to 30 minutes out of the script without much substantial loss.
This production does not scrimp in any way, from Brian O’Keefe’s layered costuming, Roger Arnold’s soundscape, and Michael Amico’s fine-grained recreation of Dickinson’s home highlighted by period furniture and brick a brac. But the masterwork was Kirk Bookman’s lighting that morphed literally a hundred times, subtly transported viewers to different places, moods, time of day, changing seasons, magically allowing Dickinson to take us back and forth in time.
Doubtless, many patrons will go home, scour their back bookshelves and retrieve that old poetry compendium to reacquaint and reevaluate their new friend’s work.
The Belle of Amherst runs through June 5 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Show times are 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Sunday. Running time approximately 2 hours 30 minutes including one intermission. Call (561) 514-4042, or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.
Covid policy: No longer requiring guests to show vaccination status. However, mask mandate remains in place. All guests must wear masks that completely cover the nose, mouth, and under the chin for their entire visit. Patrons who refuse to follow the guidelines established to protect artists, staff, audience members, and volunteers will be asked to leave the performance. No refunds will be issued.
Parking: Parking rates in city garages (including the Banyan garage behind the theater) have recently changed. Also, events and construction take place in downtown West Palm Beach frequently. The availability of parking may be affected by these events. Allow plenty of time to arrive before the performance. But several garages are within a three-minute walk of the theater. To see their location, view a map at https://www.palmbeachdramaworks.org/box-office/directions-parking.