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‘The Belle of Amherst’: Emily Dickinson inhabits Palm Beach Dramaworks

Margery Lowe as Emily Dickinson.

Photo by Palm Beach Dramaworks

Palm Beach Dramaworks’ stunning production of “The Belle of Amherst” incorporates the best features of the streamed version, which Dramaworks broadcast last year, while showing the power of live theater to move an audience. It shines a bright light into the very soul of the enigmatic poet Emily Dickinson, revealing her art and Emily herself.

This first-person monologue speaks truths about life and death with wisdom that came strictly from within, looking back at her life from her early 50s. Margery Lowe gives an incandescent performance, breathtaking in range and passion.

“The Belle of Amherst” was meticulously researched by William Luce, who wrote it in the mid-1970s, inspired by the actress who would play the role on Broadway, Julie Harris. She is closely identified with the play.

In addition to Luce’s brilliant integration of 19th century sensibility with Dickinson’s letters and poems, the Palm Beach Dramaworks production with Lowe playing Emily breathes real life into the character and her setting. One would never know there is only one woman on the stage.

Lowe is not only a doppelganger for Emily; she also played her in a two-hander premiere at Dramaworks in 2018, “Edgar and Emily.” That work was lighthearted, comic in many ways, and you didn’t get to know Emily as you do in Luce’s play.

Lowe’s Emily is filled with life and expectations and the acceptance of her obscurity as a poet, although with secret hopes for publication. She has her “words,” and words are her life. Yes, she must seek “the best words,” and they swirl about in her observations of nature, light, love and the routines of living, as well as the inevitability of death. Although I have seen Lowe perform in many plays over the years, this is the one I will always remember.

“The Belle of Amherst” director William Hayes also doesn’t see this Emily as a shy, reclusive intellectual, but instead as a passionate observer, almost to the point of breathlessness, highlighting her mischievous side, her vivaciousness and her vulnerability. And she’s a great cook (her own opinion).

He has her moving to and fro, from her writing desk to her bed to the parlor, sitting on the floor with her scraps of writing and her finished poems. All this while talking not only to the audience and to herself, but also to friends and family — one-sided, of course; only she can hear the replies. Nonetheless, the audience can divine the other side from her reactions.

In the streamed version Hayes had to be concerned about the camera view. Live theater has liberated the director to bring the full expanse to the audience, including the many comic touches the streamed version could not fully exploit. Laughter heightens her humanity, and Hayes and Lowe capitalize on those moments. As Lowe said: “Nothing beats live theater. I did the film without a scene partner, but now my scene partner will be right in front of me.”

Lowe does it all flawlessly, making an inward journey and inviting us along. She fully engages the audience, seemingly making eye contact with everyone, creating a rare sense of intimacy. I found myself frequently smiling as if she were talking to me personally.

Hayes and Lowe are in perfect sync and on a magnificent stage designed by the award-winning Michael Amico. Every detail has a purpose: the floral arrangements; the large windows upstage, perfect for lighting touches; her flawlessly made bed and dresser; her sacred, small writing desk; the tea cart and service, inspired by historical accuracy. The entire stage takes on the feeling of a fine tapestry. And the centerpiece is the trunk of her poems, which she finally offers to the audience as her legacy. “Remembrance — a mighty word.”

Light imagery is so important in her poems. Once when we visited her home in Amherst, which is now a museum, we were allowed to linger in her bedroom, where her writing desk was, to look out those same windows and see the late-afternoon light as she would have seen it. One becomes acutely conscious of her light imagery and the sparse, enigmatic content of her poems. Kirk Bookman’s lighting captures similar moments, ebbing and flowing with her emotions, beautifully framing Lowe. During a rare display of the aurora borealis, colors flood the stage.

Brian O’Keefe’s costumes are stirring. Not only did he masterfully design and create Emily’s signature white ensemble with the cinched waist and voluminous sleeves, but all the accessories, the shawls, the apron, the bonnet and cape, and parasol add the finishing touches that lend such authenticity to this production.

Sound designer Roger Arnold’s ominous church bells chime during a funeral, and Emily’s normally strict, staid father sounds them as the aurora borealis begins. The sounds of a train are in perfect sync with Lowe’s gestures of the local train’s labyrinthine path to Amherst, and when she follows a horse-drawn carriage, the clip-clop joins her. Her favorite bluebird sings outside her window. Arnold also reinforces PBD’s attention to detail as he chose classical incidental music by a composer and pianist of her time, William Mason, whose music Emily might have heard.

This play demands one’s full attention, but those who give themselves over to this inspired solo performance are in store for a soul-searching and satisfying tour de force. It runs through June 5 at the Don & Ann Brown Theatre in downtown West Palm Beach.


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