What you have to know from the start about a new local production of "The Belle of Amherst" is that the story of how it was put together makes it remarkable even before it begins.
This is the believed to be the first full-scale production presented inside a South Florida theater since the pandemic shut down production a year ago. While there have been some virtual streamings, the first joint production of Palm Beach Dramaworks and Actor's Playhouse, built an entire production.
And although the play was video recorded without an audience for streaming purposes, the production still had to adhere to 39 pages of COVID-19 protocols required by the national theater union, Actor's Equity.
Faced with such restrictions, director William Hayes, DramaWorks producing artistic director, and David Arisco, Actor's Playhouse's artistic director, chose this one-woman drama about Emily Dickinson. Wisely in their casting, award-winning actress and South Florida favorite Margery Lowe portrays the poet.
Julie Harris originated this role in the 1976 production and not only won a Tony, but took home a Grammy for her recording of it. William Luce's one-woman play was a tour de force for Harris and it is also for Lowe, who wholly embodies Dickinson wholly, playing the diminutive figure with an expectedly unparalleled command of the English language, as well as an albeit repressed, lust for life.
To say this is a demanding role is an understatement. Lowe is the sole figure on stage for the 2 hour, 15-minute play, which requires her to ricochet back and forth in time –without costume or set changes, starting off as a middle-aged woman, and then, at times, reliving critical moments in her childhood, young adulthood, and then her current age in the play.
As the play opens, we meet Dickinson, who by that time has lived alone for quite a while, but is entertaining an unspecified and unseen guest, who will be her focus as the play unfolds.
To tell her story, Lowe assumes 15 roles, not in a showy fashion, or by doing impressions, but by casually assuming the personas of significant people in her life – her parents, her siblings, her mentors, and suitors – as naturally as she dons on a shawl during the play.
While most definitely a drama, "The Belle of Amherst," is a very witty one, peppered throughout with humor. She slyly confides in her guests that she has a practice of sending obscure notes to her fellow townspeople, befuddling them, resulting in their wondering and talking about her.
There is lots of lightness in Act 1, but in Act 2, Dickinson's world grows darker, as disappointments gather, especially surrounding her dream of becoming a well-known poet by catching the eye of an editor from a noted magazine. Likewise, we learn glimpses of her yearning for love, as, one by one, those stories unspool.
But, although Dickinson's story is poignant, Lowe's portrayal of her is never gloomy. She may give in to a few tears, but never sobbing. Despite her petite size, Dickinson stands tall, garbed in a Victorian dress with voluminous skirt, in all-white, the color she always wore. She preservers in no-nonsense fashion, good humoredly – a bit wickedly, perhaps –but always courageously, staying true what she terms as her "job," which is the writing of her poetry.
And it is the poetry for which the "The Belle of Amherst" is most lauded. Tucked within the dialogue, so natural that we are provided a thrill of recognition as Lowe unfurls them, are 65 of Dickinson's poems – ranging from the lesser known what we know now as her "hits,"; if this was an opera, they would be the arias.
Lowe has only a single set to roam around in, as she strides about, but it is perfectly furnished to the period, and roomy enough for the tasks she performs, and it is the fact that she is often in movement that keeps the play from becoming stagnant. Among the tasks she assigns herself is explaining the recipe for her favorite "Black Cake," (A Victorian holiday cake that PBS popularized when they broadcast the play); taking up pen and ink to dash off notes at her desk, while crumbling the ones she decides to discard, and so on.
All of the crew was kept spare to keep within the Actor's Equity's provisions and deserve accolades. Michael Amico's set is period perfect, as are Brian O'Keefe's costumes. A special nod to lighting designer Kirk Bookman. It is his skillful touch that portrays the passing of time, as days darken into night, and enhance Dickinson's moments of happiness, darken with her sadness, and then light her up as her triumphant spirit reigns again.
Also, in case you've had difficulty with streaming programs, rest assured that this production is perfect; the high definition video recording is vivid, and the sound is rich.
Because "The Belle of Amherst," is streaming, you can watch it at your leisure, or all at once, as you would if you in a theater, as we all hope to be in again one day soon.
This is a play that is certainly theater worthy but, since I was viewing it at home, it harkened me back to the TV dramas of the 1950s and 60s, the Westinghouse Studio One and Playhouse 90 productions that starred actors like In Peter Lorie, Paul Newman, and Maureen Stapleton, and are now looked back upon as television's "Golden Age."
- "The Belle of Amherst" is available to download for a single livestream at the patron's convenience April 2-6 from Palm Beach Dramaworks and Actors' Playhouse.
- Tickets are $30; viewing is free to season subscribers.
- To purchase tickets, go to www.palmbeachdramaworks.org or call the box office: (561) 514.4042, ext. 2.