Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
The Belle of Amherst
With a set similar to the original, changes by master carpenter Nicholas Fleming serve only to enhance the story. By elevating Emily's bedroom, thereby setting it apart from the main play area, we see how this oasis quickly becomes Emily's sanctuary far away from the cacophony of real life. Lighting by Riley Lewis gently intensifies this feeling of chosen isolation. Indeed, Dickinson's final years were spent essentially in seclusion, eventually communicating with others only from behind her bedroom door. Other modifications–working oil lanterns, and the addition of a parlor window–add greatly to the ambiance.
The play was written by William Luce, much of it in the shape of quotes and passages from Emily's letters and diaries, with her own words painting a portrait of one of the greatest poets in the English language. And with Ronda Lewis once again in the titular role, we meet a gracious Emily Dickinson as she enters her final years.
Lewis does an excellent job leading, guiding, sometimes pushing us through three decades of Emily's adult life. From adolescence to adulthood, we visit with this often enigmatic poet as she entertains us with tales of youthful "misdemeanors." She tells us of infatuations with (always mature) men within her circle that she came into contact with–these passions we come to understand to live only in her head. We hear how the death of her beloved father, a man who showed no affection toward his children, provoked a sad realization from her brother. Yet it is the loss of her adored nephew Gilbert that breaks her heart (and, by transference, our hearts).
By times playful and very amusing, her seeming disregard for the opinions of others is evident throughout her life, and Lewis is charming as her Emily relates with glee how she knowingly teases her neighbors. An impish Emily admits encouraging gossip-mongering by increasing her eccentric behaviors. Her decision to wear only white as she matured, and to remain inside her family home, had her identified as "The Nun of Amherst." If the script is to be believed, this title she seemed to acknowledge and relish with a smile. But sometimes, underneath, we catch a glimpse of a lonely woman whose fine, unconventional mind and unusual manners only exacerbate her loneliness. Yet we also hear more than one intimation of a long-time romance, consummated within the grounds of her house, with a woman who ultimately married Dickinson's brother Austin. Indications of an additional, similar affair with another female friend, which seemingly ended amicably, is also implied.
Throughout the entire performance, it seems Dickinson's spirit dwells in Lewis, so comfortable is she with narrating. At no time did I feel I was getting Dickinson "second-hand." In The Belle of Amherst, Emily's life unfolds with an often nervous energy, reminding us of how brittle this slight woman, an improbable virtuoso, tragically unrecognized in her lifetime, actually is. And how lucky we are her sister Lavinia chose to disregard her express wishes to burn all her poems, an amazing 1800 of them, after her untimely death at aged 56.
Chatting with Lewis after her performance, she made mention of how grateful she is to her original director and set designer, Staci Robbins, citing her invaluable contribution to "bringing Emily to life." That she applied all the original "blocking," the only exceptions being changes necessitated by the placement of Emily's new "bedroom," to this production, demonstrates a tribute indeed to this director.
Alone onstage for the just under two hour (including intermission) performance, Emily, in her new white dress, courtesy of costume designer Kaylee Lynora Silcoks-Gore, is perfectly at home on the beautiful set, and the props, by designer Lando Ruiz, who also designed the sound, are perfect.
Sadly, this is another short run, so don't miss it (again).
The Belle of Amherst runs through October 9, 2022, at Albuquerque Little Theatre, 224 San Pasquale SW, Albuquerque NM. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Additional performance Thursday, October 6 at 7.30pm. (Tickets: Adults $25, seniors (65+) $23, students (13 - University) $21, and children (12 and Under) $17. For tickets and information, please call 505-242-4750 x 2 or visit www.albuquerquelittletheatre.org.