The Belle of Amherst (presented at Kirkland Town Library, 2015)

The Belle of Amherst

The Belle of Amherst

“Hope” is the thing with feathers

Barbara Pratt mesmerized a packed house last night with a tour de force performance of William Luce’s one-woman play The Belle of Amherst. Written in 1976, the piece casts the audience as visitors to the Amherst, Massachusetts home of poet Emily Dickinson. She greeted us with cake, reciting the recipe (it was available to sample after the performance.) At the beginning, her staccato movements and rapid, clipped speech made her seem like a skittish bird – wary of strangers. As the play progressed, she became warmer and more expansive, like an old friend.

Luce doesn’t sketch a biography of Dickinson per se; rather, he uses her writing to frame a meta poem of sorts – the frequent verses are incorporated organically into a work that is itself poetic. As embodied by Pratt, the illusion was of a restless creative force unleashed before our eyes. The actress didn’t falter over the marathon recitation – although my watch said it had been two hours, the performance felt much shorter and our visit ended too soon.

The Kirkland Town Library’s Bristol Room was an ideal choice of venue. The audience entered past shelves of books, foreshadowing one of Luce’s main themes, the importance of words. Director/Designer Pat Stone’s set was compact and evocative, filled with details and props that enhanced the world being portrayed. The suggestion of different rooms, filled with windows that looked out on the world, was subtle but effective.

It’s one thing to write a poet’s biography – a collection of milestones and anecdotes that tell us what happened. It’s another, trickier thing to reveal the creative mind. At the end of a captivating evening, I knew just a bit more about Emily Dickinson’s life; the real gift of this production is that it made me understand, and feel, the poet’s greatness using her own words. Don’t miss this – one of the year’s best.