Alison’s House – An Illumination Inspired by Emily Dickinson’s Life

 

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Amanda Jones and John D. McNally Photo: Alban Rombaux

 

by: Carole Di Tosti

 

Alison’s House, Susan Glaspell’s 1931 Pulitzer Prize winning play written in 1930, is enjoying a rare revival at the Metropolitan Playhouse. Directed with painstaking attention to historic detail (interior décor, costumes, lighting) by Alex Roe, the play which was inspired by the life and legacy of Emily Dickinson is being presented uncut for the first time since its initial debut.

 

The Dickinson family denied Glaspell the opportunity to reference their name, favoring privacy over the garish spotlight that their brilliant, fiercely reclusive ancestor avoided. Glaspell imaginatively tackled the thorny problem and evolved an intriguing play rife with trenchant themes and searing conflicts.

 

The setting is December 31, 1899 at the Stanhope family homestead in Iowa. It is a critical time of transformation for the nation and this family who are selling the generational home where the foremost American poet Alison Stanhope lived her entire life. Conflicts boil over when an awestruck and energetic Chicago based reporter, Richard Knowles (a fine Paul Herbig) gains access to the house and Alison’s room.

 

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Meredith M. Sweeney and Paul Herbig Photo: Joseph Seibert

Knowles’ presence has the impact of dynamite and unsettles the family members who align on either side of a divide which manifests prickly questions. Should artifacts and personal writings of an American icon be destroyed according to her wishes or celebrated? For the purposes of education shouldn’t a national treasure and beacon of women’s poetic accomplishments publicly be given her due? To what extent must family members disavow their family name whose notoriety becomes a blight on their own fortunes and accomplishments?

 

On one side of the chasm are the older generation, Alison’s sister Agatha (a near perfect Sidney Fortner), brother John (an excellent John D. McNally), with support from Eben’s wife Louise (Anne Bates is appropriately strident and querulous). These family members present the case that though the house must be sold, broken up and the memories lost with it, the circumstances must remain private with as little stirring as possible. Agatha is unwell, confused and distraught at the changes which are happening at breakneck speed. She is particularly set against revealing her sister’s secrets, a desecration of her memory. All are overburdened with the weight of Alison’s greatness and feel obligated to withstand the pressures of relinquishing their private relationship with her which time and public exposure threaten to demean and dissipate.

 

On the opposite side are the younger generation, the offspring Eben (John Long moderates his strained personality with adroitness), the disgraced Elsa (Amanda Jones develops her with poignant beauty), and the refreshing Ted (Blaine Smith is humorous and sharply, recognizably modern). These are willing to forge ahead into the next century without fear and trembling. They would lift Alison’s legacy high, remove themselves from its burden and fly freely into their own destiny. They would publicly celebrate her memory with moderately protective empathy and love. Extended family include the young secretary and quasi family member Ann Leslie (a fine Meredith M. Sweeney), and Jennie the maid (Florence Marcisak).

 

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John D. McNally, Florence Marcisak, Sidney Fortner Photo: Bradley Coleman

Complicating the issues are those who would obviate the historical relevance of a majestic family homestead by reconfiguring it into another genus altogether. The Hodges (Katharine Scarborough and Matt McAllister are enthusiastically calculating) are purchasing the homestead. In an unannounced visit, they foreshadow the hungry developers of the next century. They will be fashioning a place for tourists and will leave little of the character, charm and nostalgia of a bygone era manifest in home. Though John and other Stanhopes cringe at the Hodges’ brash prospects, they must embrace the coming century and all it presages with the belief that renewal will come.

 

As the close of the century hastens into the evening hours, it is then that the conflicts and undercurrents break open and peak. Secrets hidden since Alison’s death are revealed. The house itself yields up a mysterious treasure that unveils profound aspects of Alison’s sensitive, blooming nature. Out in the open, finally, the discoveries inspire others toward hope and spiritual peace.

 

This excellent presentation of Alison’s House, is at the Metropolitan Playhouse on 220 E 4th Street, New York City. It runs from November 13 – December 13. Tickets are $25 general; $20 students/seniors; $10 children, and may be purchased online at www.metropolitanplayhouse.org/tickets or by telephone at 800-838-3006.

 

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