Many years ago, on a visit to Amherst, Massachusetts, I visited the Emily Dickinson Museum — the meticulously preserved family home where the poet spent her entire life. And I still remember the immaculate white dress that hung on the door in her notably spare bedroom, conjuring the petite, pristine ghost of the poet herself.
Just such a white dress is now being worn by actress Kate Fry in her gloriously phosphorescent performance in Court Theatre’s production of “The Belle of Amherst,” William Luce’s one-woman play (premiered by Julie Harris in 1976) that might just be the most enduring and revelatory portrait of the artist we have aside from the plain, prim daguerrotype taken of her in 1847, when she was 17.
‘THE BELLE OF AMHERST’
When: Through Dec. 3
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis
Tickets: $50 – $68
Info: (773) 753-4472;
Run time: 2 hours with one intermission
As Dickinson herself wrote: “Phosphorescence. Now there’s a word to lift your hat … to find that phosphorescence, that light within, that’s the genius behind poetry.”
Fry, too, possesses a magical inner light. Her emotional fire, sparkling intelligence, knowing wit, subdued beauty and modest yet blazing certitude is widely admired by Chicago audiences. And in Dickinson — the eccentric Victorian spinster whose enigmatic, precision-tooled work was barely published during her lifetime, and whose posthumous recognition as a towering force in American literature would surely have amused and delighted her — Fry has found a force to reckon with, and one whose innate nature and genius fits her like a glove.
Dickinson has been enjoying something of a Renaissance these days with Terrence Davies’ film “A Quiet Passion” (released earlier this year and starring Cynthia Nixon), museum exhibitions, and the publication of “Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium: A Facsimile Edition,” the magnificent book of pressed plant specimens she assembled when she was a 14-year-old student at Amherst Academy.
But the woman we meet in Luce’s play, which has been artfully directed by Sean Graney, is no textbook recluse or garden variety neurotic. Rather, she is a force to reckon with, an artist convinced of her own special gift, possessed of a fiercely independent mind (no orthodox religion for her, but a fervent spirituality that found a higher power in nature, which she could describe to exquisite effect) and an erotic nature that fixated on quite a few men during the course of her life, even if her desire remained unconsummated.
We first meet Dickinson when she is 53 — just two years away from death — and she is visibly surprised and delighted by the appearance of us, her audience. (The poet was not above the quest for fame, but eventually came to terms with the fact that it would not be given to her.) She immediately welcomes us by whipping up her fabled “black cake,” giving us the recipe for what must easily have been a 10-pound loaf filled with eggs, molasses, spices, many pounds of raisins and currants, and brandy. She also tells us she hasn’t left her family’s home in years, keeping “her own society” as she puts it, and dwelling primarily in her imagination and in her garden, although she lets us know she had a very lively, crush-filled teenage life.
Both trapped and protected by her family, Dickinson was the daughter of a dour but successful lawyer and an emotionally distant mother, and had a handsome older brother, Austin, who married and became a father, and a devoted younger sister, Lavinia, who, like her, never married. Yet she kept abreast of the wider world through extensive correspondence with far-flung friends and potential publishers, including Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whose visit to Amherst is wonderfully suggested by Fry’s euphoric preparation and subsequent devastation when he fails to understand her work. And in 1855 she made a rare trip with her family to Philadelphia where she met the famous minister Charles Wadsworth (older and married), for whom she developed intense feelings that were, as usual, unrequited.
Words (what she dubbed “sacred beings”) were the essence of Dickinson’s existence. She had faith in them, though while she wrote more than 1,700 poems, fewer than a dozen were published during her lifetime. No wonder the notion of eternity became such an abiding theme for her.
Luce seamlessly melded Dickinson’s poems into his play, and Fry (dressed in Samantha Jones’ ideal costumes) brings them to life with unique clarity and intensity. Arnel Sancianco’s fanciful Victorian set is enhanced by Mike Durst’s lovely lighting, which subtly shifts the hues of the white walls in Dickinson’s bedroom to suggest the changes of seasons and moods in her poems.
“The heart wants what it wants — or else it does not care,” Dickinson wrote. In her tour de force performance, Fry bares that heart in its every beat.