Theatre Review: “The Belle of Amherst” at Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre

Yesterday afternoon I drove to the Marian University campus on the west side of Indianapolis to see the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s very enjoyable production of “The Belle of Amherst.”  It was written by William Luce and directed by Robert J. Sorbera. 

What the Show Is About

This is an intimate one-woman show about the life of the reclusive American poet Emily Dickinson.  It is like going back in time to the 19th century and spending a couple of hours with this fascinating person as she tells you directly about her life and work.  She jumps around a bit in time, but basically we are with her from a Valentine’s Day in her youth, through her growing older and giving up on being published, through the death of her parents, to just before she dies, with many other episodes and many interactions with other people in between.

Artistic Considerations

The playwright drew heavily on Emily’s actual letters and poems but wove them together in a very natural, conversational way, so the show has both a feeling of historical authenticity and a feeling of here-and-now realness.

Carrie A. Schlatter brings Emily Dickinson to life.  That’s “all” there is to it.  I was the first to leap to my feet to applaud at the end of the show and when the house lights came up, another audience member asked me, “Do you know her?”  She meant did I know the actor personally.  “No,” I said, “but now I feel as if I know Emily Dickinson.”  There is no higher praise.

Carrie portrays Emily as a lover of life – gleeful, and with a mischievous sense of humor.  I wouldn’t call this a hilarious show, but I did laugh often during it.  Carrie doesn’t quite give Emily a New England accent but she does speak crisply and distinctly, like a person who “lifts her hat to words” that she particularly relishes, and who knows something is a poem when “it feels physically as if the top of my head were taken off.”

Carrie also portrays Emily’s awkward shyness and the hurts she suffered from people that did not understand her personal intensity or the strengths of her unconventional poems.  The play is Emily telling her own story, so it is not unbiased, but it is honest from her point of view and much more forthright a telling than anyone got from her when she was alive, I bet.  She lets us in on her heartbreak, too, and her grief.

At the panel discussion moderated by Civic’s Director of Music and Education, Brent E. Marty, after this particular performance, both the director and Butler University Dickinson scholar Dr. Hilene Flanzbaum said that the play does not show the full extent of Emily’s illnesses – both physical and mental.  She was probably much more nervous and depressed in person.  We don’t really know.  This play was written in the 1970s, based on what scholars knew then.  A new book has just been published that suggests that Emily may have had epilepsy.  In any case, Hilene said that many of Emily’s poems that were not included in this play are very dark.  Emily was influenced by Keats; he suffered greatly, too.

I get all that, but I also think that there are many right ways to tell anyone’s life story.  I appreciate that this particular version of Emily Dickinson’s is maybe a little protective of her, or at least is determined to treat her life story with love as well as respect and honesty.

The script and Carrie’s delivery make Emily’s poems conversational, and inseparable from the rest of her life.  When the poems you recognize come up, you feel a little like cheering but Emily is talking and it would be rude to interrupt her, so you stay quiet.  Still, it is a thrill to hear Emily “herself” reciting “I’m nobody, who are you?” and “I could not stop for death…” and “Hope is the thing with feathers…” while she pours another cup of tea or folds the afghan on her bed.

The beautifully detailed period set, designed and lit by Ryan Koharchik, is of both the inside and the outside of the Dickinson “Homestead,” simultaneously.  Emily’s neighbors never got to fully see her as an adult because she always ran upstairs whenever someone came calling.  Perhaps the set lets us know that we will never fully know her, either, but we are allowed in more fully just this once.  The set is mostly of her living room and small bedroom, with an authentic replica (I learned at the panel discussion) of the tiny desk at which she wrote all of her poems.

Behind the large windows, out of which Emily looks often, the scene changes from time to time: oversized clouds or giant flowered trees or…  These projections were designed by Zach Rosing and add another layer of wistful yet dynamic energy to the piece.  Emily’s secluded life was small to the people that observed it from the outside, but large to her.

Emily tells us that as an adult she always wore white.  She does, in fact, wear only a long, white cotton dress for the whole show.  However, Jean Engstrom’s costume design includes several appropriate accessories as well: a white apron, a softly colorful shawl, a funeral bonnet, and a long black cape, for example.  Carrie smoothly and subtly employs these as props to aid in her telling of Emily’s life story.  They add yet another layer of texture and movement to the piece.

For most of the play we hear only Emily’s voice and it is more than enough because it is so full of life and a variety of emotions.  Also, contrary to her quiet reputation, she sometimes yells for her brother, Austin, or her sister, Vinnie.  Michael J. Lasley’s sound design responds well to the changes in Emily’s volume.  It also includes a very few – just right – quiet embellishments of music and sound effects. 

Troy Trinkle is the technical director.  Maggie E. Ward is the stage manager.   The run crew includes Mac Ely, Allison Henderson, and Kristen Henderson.  Isaiah Newkirk is the sound board operator.  Barbara Riordan is the costume assistant.  At the performance I saw, the execution of all of the production designs seemed flawless.

Cast and crew bios are available online at civictheatre.org.

Audience and Appeal Factors

This is a rich and satisfying piece of live performance art, but I wouldn’t take little kids to this show, nor people of any age that need a constant stream of bloody explosions and naked dancers to hold their attention. 

There are mild references to death and adultery but they are very mild.  There is no cursing, violence, or explicit sex.

This is a show for adults and teens that love a) experiencing the “real people” side of history, b) thinking about a writer’s process and how adversity and seclusion nurture or stifle art, and/or c) hearing from someone famous “in person.”

It is also a treat for those of us that admire the skill it takes to create, develop, and deliver an excellent solo show.

It is also a treat for fans of Carrie Schlatter’s work.  I was surprised and interested to read in the press kit that Margaret Henney had waiting for me at the box office that Carrie is an Irvington resident.  (Irvington is an historic neighborhood on the near east side of Indianapolis that is popular with artists and ghost researchers.)  I was also interested to read that Carrie’s favorite quote from this show is “A word is dead when it is said, some say.  I say it just begins to live that day.”

However, I already knew and admired Carrie’s performance art from seeing her in “Yankee Tavern” at the Phoenix Theatre and “Enchanted April” at Civic.  Also, when I searched Indy Theatre Habit just now I found that I had first seen – and admired – her work in a show she directed for the now-defunct Alley Theater, called “Unmerciful Good Fortune.”

But “The Belle of Amherst” is also, of course, and perhaps most of all, a treat for lovers of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

Box Office

“The Belle of Amherst” runs only for two weekends, through Sunday, November 14, 2010, so if this show interests you, please note that you only have one more weekend in which to see it.  Curtain time is 7pm on Thursday, 8pm on Friday and Saturday, and 2pm on Sunday.  To purchase tickets, call the Civic Box Office at 317-923-4597 or visit www.civictheatre.org.

Parking on the Marian campus is free (and the campus is gorgeous this time of year!) but be sure to give yourself plenty of time in which to find a parking place and walk back to the theatre building.

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

(Photo above taken by Zach Rosing.)

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