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Review: 'Belle of Amherst' gives us a sly, stunning take on Emily Dickinson

The Palm Beach Post
The Palm Beach Post
 2022-05-27
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The life of poet Emily Dickinson is detailed in a delightful and moving production of William Luce's “The Belle of Amherst," now on stage at Palm Beach Dramaworks in West Palm Beach.

While Dickinson is now known as a famous and influential poet, during her lifetime she was known as an eccentric spinster who wore only white clothing. She isolated herself in her family home in Amherst, Massachusetts, for decades, and dedicated herself to gardening, baking, caring for her sickly mother, and her true passion, writing.

While only a handful of her poems were published during her lifetime, her prolific output of work was discovered by her sister after her death, which led to the widespread publishing that Dickinson craved.

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“The Belle of Amherst” begins in 1883 when Dickinson was 53 years old — she would die just three years later. The structure of the play travels back and forth in time, as Dickinson relates incidents in her life to her guests, the audience. Her poetry is used liberally throughout the play.

The success of a one-person play such as “The Belle of Amherst” depends entirely on the actress cast as Emily Dickinson, and director William Hayes certainly made the right choice by hiring Margery Lowe. Lowe is no stranger to Palm Beach Dramaworks and has portrayed Dickinson before at the theater, both in a streamed version of the play last year and in their world premiere production of Joseph McDonough’s play "Edgar and Emily” in 2018.

Lowe’s warmth and considerable talent is what makes “The Belle of Amherst” so engaging. Except for the intermission, she never leaves the stage for the two-and-a-half-hour production. Lowe plays Dickinson’s carefully cultivated eccentricity as a sly joke on the outside world. She invites the audience into Dickinson’s world, which, under her skillful hand, feels so much bigger than the confines of the poet’s well-appointed Victorian-era house.

Lowe’s portrayal is exquisite. The wistfulness with which she recounts Dickinson’s teenage crushes and unrequited loves, the glee as she tells of girlhood rebellions, the uninhibited joy she displays in Dickinson’s love of words and boundless curiosity, makes the poet come alive in a way that takes her from romantic figure to a flesh-and-blood woman.

Hayes keeps the pace brisk. His staging keeps Lowe moving and prevents the play from feeling static. Michael Amico’s detailed set is gorgeous, with three imposing, boxed, windows that appear three times Lowe’s height. From the sides they resemble coffins, a constant reminder of the many losses in Dickinson’s life and her preoccupation with death. The windows are set in front of black curtains, giving the play an ethereal quality.

Palm Beach Dramaworks’ production of the “The Belle of Amherst” breathes new life into the mythic nature of Emily Dickinson and features a stunning performance by Lowe that should not be missed.

*

If You Go

“The Belle of Amherst” runs through June 5, at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. For tickets and more information, or details on the venue’s COVID-19 protocol, call 561-514-4042 or visit www.PalmBeachDramaworks.org.

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