'The Belle of Amherst': Theater Review

Carol Rosegg
Joely Richardson in "The Belle of Amherst"
The British actress acquits herself nicely in her moving portrayal of that most American of poets

Joely Richardson ("Nip/Tuck") stars as poet Emily Dickinson in this one-person play made famous by Julie Harris

"Words are my life," declares Emily Dickinson, portrayed by Joely Richardson in The Belle of Amherst. And indeed, words are what you get in this Off-Broadway revival of William Luce's 1976 one-woman play, immortalized by actress Julie Harris in a Tony Award-winning turn that she later reprised for a PBS television production. Conveying the essence of the reclusive poet's life via an interweaving of her poems, letters, diaries and pure imagination, it's an incisive portrait that provides a marvelous vehicle for talented actresses.

Richardson is accustomed to having big shoes to fill thanks to her lineage: she's the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and director Tony Richardson; her grandparents are famed British thespians Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson; and her sister is the late Natasha Richardson. But her task here is particularly challenging, due to Harris' luminous performance, which is cherished by anyone who saw it and is still available for viewing in home-entertainment formats.

While comparisons are inevitable, Richardson — best known to American audiences for such films and television shows as The Patriot, The Tudors and Nip/Tuck — delivers a thoroughly credible if not revelatory performance. Her ethereal beauty, here somewhat disguised with brown hair tied in the back, doesn't exactly recall the rather plain Dickinson revealed in vintage photographs. And it's disconcerting to have a British actress playing that most American of poets.

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But Richardson beautifully captures the complex emotions of the character, effortlessly conveying the impish humor and no-nonsense qualities that were evident in Dickinson's private writings. "Bliss is so unnatural, don't you think?" she asks, while also revealing that her image as the town's spinster eccentric was a self-construct.

"I enjoy the game," she confides. "I've never said this to anyone, but I'll tell you. I do it on purpose. The white dress, the seclusion, it's all deliberate."

In addition to interacting with various unseen characters including her sister, brother, father and her mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, she reveals her innermost thoughts, both profound and trivial, the latter illustrated by her recipe for "black cake," which includes no less than nineteen eggs.

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And she delivers generous excerpts from her poetry, accompanied by dramatic shifts in lighting during the recitations. It's startling to be reminded that Dickinson published only seven poems during her lifetime, all anonymously.

She's deeply moving when describing her unrequited love for one Charles Wadsworth, despite the fact that she only spoke to him twice in her life and the occasions were twenty years apart.

Luce's play is dense at times in its torrential talkiness, and the lack of dramatic events in his subject's life makes the evening slow going at times. Director Steve Cosson's unintrusive staging does little to make it more theatrical, but it's in keeping with Dickinson's low-key life, as is Antie Ellermann's simple set design depicting the parlor of her family's Amherst home.

Patience and rapt attention are certainly required to appreciate the work's subtleties. But thanks to Richardson's open-hearted turn, by the time it's over we feel as if we're fully acquainted with this enigmatic literary icon.

Cast: Joely Richardson
Director: Steve Cosson
Playwright: William Luce
Set designer: Antie Ellermann
Costume designer: William Ivey Long
Lighting designer: David Weiner
Sound designer: Daniel Kluger

Presented by Don Gregory