NY Theater Review – Sandi Durell
If you’re not a fan of poetry and, more importantly, Emily Dickinson, you might find the two hours (with intermission) at the Westside Theatre a bit of a ho hum. But if you are, it’s sheer delight to find Joely Richardson (of the Redgrave lineage) and known for films and TV’s The Patriot, Nip/Tuck, The Tudors, in this one-woman portrayal of the spinster recluse as she interweaves Dickinson’s poems, diaries, writings and esoteric thoughts.
It’s best not to make comparisons with this revival by William Luce of the 1976 performance by the stunning Julie Harris. Ms. Richardson is surely up to the task and fills the poet’s life with humor, sarcasm and earthy eccentric qualities.
We meet Emily in 1883, at the age of 53, dressed in characteristic white (William Ivey Long), giving us her recipe for ‘black cake’ – you must use 19 eggs and bake it for 3 hours in a cake pan, or 6-7 hours in a milk pan!
Dickinson relates the need for a writer to possess ‘phosphorescence’ – “the light within is the genius behind poetry.” We become acquainted with Emily’s life from girlhood and how she was expected to be the belle of Amherst by age 17.
Interspersed throughout, are segments of her poetry and writings as she pontificates to her audience – “bliss is so unnatural, don’t you think?”
She spent 8 years sending her poems to mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson at Atlantic Monthly, only to be rejected by him. She reveals her love for Charles Wadsworth, having only spoken to him twice, twenty years apart.
We are privy to conversations with her sister Lavinia (Vinni) with whom she lived, and others within the household and those she speaks of within the play. Most amazing is the fact that Emily Dickinson anonymously published only 7 of her poems in her lifetime.
Ms. Richardson is a fine actress and, even with the sniffles (at the performance I attended) managed to hold the attention of a rapt audience in the simple but period perfect setting designed by Antje Ellermann including wallpaper with birds and breaks in the wall design revealing outside hedges. The sensitive lighting, by David Weiner, enhances the poetic moments, of which there are many, as Emily recites portions of her poetry giving punctuation to her thoughts and dialogue.
Director Steve Cosson brought a combination of great sadness and melancholia together with childlike joy to the character.
The play is not for the everyday theater-goer but if you want to know more about Emily Dickinson you surely will be rewarded.
“The Belle of Amherst” – Westside Theatre, 407 West 43 St., NYC, 212-239-6200, telecharge.com. Through Jan. 25.