Emily Dickinson must be one of the ripest subjects in history for a one-woman play. Think about it. She was brilliant with words, rife with big emotions, and a bit of a home-keeping hermit later in life, so there you go: great dialogue, great drama, and you only need one set. The Belle of Amherst, now in revival at Off Broadway’s Westside Theatre, has all that going for it. Taking place entirely in Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Mass., on a single day in the late 19th century, the play is a rambling, charming monologue that begins when the poet (Nip/Tuck‘s Joely Richardson) walks into her room and ends when she walks out of it, with one quick pause for an intermission. If you were expecting the ghostly author of American folklore—a white-dressed oracle trapped inside by fear of the world—then brace yourself. As drawn by playwright William Luce, using poems, diaries, and letters, Dickinson is practically a yenta: a gossipy, won’t-shut-up kind of lady who goes on about everything from her colorful family to her literary aspirations to her reputation as a neighborhood kook. (Before the night is over, you will know her greatest fears and her favorite cake recipe.)
The play earned raves when it debuted in 1976 with Julie Harris, and it’s easy to see why Richardson would be drawn to a revival. It offers a humongous, juicy role for an actress, spanning smiles and tears, history and fantasy, prose and poetry. Like most solo shows, it’s both a big opportunity and a great risk. There’s nowhere to hide if it doesn’t work, no one to lean on if the energy flags. For Richardson, the gamble doesn’t quite pay off. During a recent performance, trudging through a few fumbled lines and what sounded like an ill-timed cold, the actress often gave the impression that she was marking out the play’s beats—laugh here, fall down crying there—without fully acting them. At times she seemed satisfied to have remembered her lines (no mean feat for a play that clocks in just under two hours). To her credit, she pulls off the right solid, patrician mien for the role, and her love for Dickinson’s poetry is palpable when she recites the magical snippets worked into the play, like iambic karaoke.
Of course, anyone can read those poems aloud at home. The promise of this play is a chance to see Dickinson herself brought briefly to life through the proxy of theater. If you believe the reviews from 1976, Harris came miraculously close. But in 2014, your best bet for a brush with the poet is still a trip to West Cemetery in Amherst. C