'The Belle of Amherst' - An Amiable Visit with Emily Dickinson

Joely Richardson in The Belle of Amherst
(©Carol Rosegg)

Theatergoers have the unique opportunity to spend some time with the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, courtesy of William Luce’s biographical play, The Belle of Amherst, which opened last night in director Steve Cosson’s agreeable revival at the Westside Theatre.

The show premiered in 1976 and starred Julie Harris, who picked up one of her six Tony Awards for her performance, went on to tour in the piece, and eventually preserved it on film for PBS. This new production stars Joely Richardson, and she’s delivering a shimmering, fluttery performance that indicates that perhaps one of the reasons Dickinson remained so shut off from the world around was the fact that she had some sort of social anxiety disorder.

It’s an intelligent, insightful choice, which has both its benefits and its pitfalls. On the one hand, it gives Luce’s play, which provides all of the necessary facts about Dickinson’s life along with a healthy smattering of her poetry, a certain urgency. Stories, pieces of her writing, and even a recipe come tumbling out of Richardson’s mouth as Dickinson entertains the audience, her visitors in her comfortable Massachusetts home (scenic designer Antje Ellermann provides the spartanly elegant interior that puts Dickinson’s parlor and study side by side).

At the same time, though, the speed of Richardson’s delivery means that there come points when it’s difficult to not wish that she were taking it just a bit more slowly so that one had a fraction of a moment to savor Dickinson’s verse or a shrewd, gently wry observation that she shares about herself, her family, or the world at large. Similarly, the clip Richardson’s keeping in the show caused her to stumble over her words at a press performance.

As she settles into a run, it’s pretty certain that such slips will disappear, and what will remain is her carefully layered performance that’s simultaneously demure and coquettish (to achieve this in the staid winter white dress that costume designer William Ivey Long has created is in itself an achievement); intensely focused and slightly scattered; and self-assured and marvelously vulnerable.

Richardson’s performance is ably supported by both David Weiner’s lighting design, which helps audiences keep track of shifts in time, and by Daniel Kluger’s sound design, which sensitively indicates the world just outside of this home, where theatergoers will find themselves thoroughly charmed by their hostess.

---- Andy Propst

The Belle of Amherst at the Westside Theatre (407 West 43rd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: belleofamherstplay.com.