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Review: “The Belle of Amherst”

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Particularly in our age of paparazzi and tabloid news, we often learn more than we ever wanted to know about our favorite celebrities. But for long-dead literary figures, biographical reenactments can prove charming and informative.

William Luce’s “The Belle of Amherst,” playing through Dec.1 at the Long Center’s Rollins Studio Theatre and produced by Austin Shakespeare, presents us with a spunky and mischievous image of the reclusive 19th century poet Emily Dickinson.

We meet Emily (Helen Merino) at her family home in Amherst, Massachusetts: the house in which she grew up and from which she hasn’t strayed in years.

Acting as the narrator of her life’s story, Emily moves us back and forth in time – welcoming us to Amherst in the 1880s (when she is in her early 50s), taking us back to her childhood and teenage years, and eventually leading us up to her own death.

Delighting in her somewhat-feigned eccentricity, the poetess tells us of how she fuels town gossip by hiding from visitors or including mysterious notes along with the baked goods she sends to neighbors.

Merino is radiant as the surprisingly exuberant recluse. She carries the burden of a two-hour one-woman show with seemingly effortless enthusiasm. And she tackles the abrupt narrative shifts of the script with a fluidity that naturalizes the jumps.

Merino presents us with a vision of the poetess as a buoyant and awkward adolescent turned middle-aged woman. Her Emily seems a charming and sprightly spinster who creates worlds in her mind’s eye and remains forever entranced by the life of language.

It may come as some surprise to learn how little recognition Dickinson achieved in her lifetime. She tells us early in act one that she has published only seven poems in her lifetime, each one anonymously.

The show’s two acts stand in stark contrast - with a gleeful first half charting her youth and search for fame, while the second half sketches a decline into adulthood, with death and resignation for company.

Ann Ciccolella’s direction keeps the pace from becoming either overwhelmingly up or down. Yet the emotional crescendos of the second act prove challenging to maintain - it’s difficult to build back up after each of Emily’s disappointments.

Written in the 1970s, “The Belle of Amherst” is longer than the kind of one-woman biographical show we expect to see today. In a more contemporary play, we would likely witness Dickinson’s life without intermission, and in spite of judicious trimming, the script nevertheless feels long. So although the show is very well done, it inevitably slows toward the finish.

“The Belle of Amherst” continues through Dec. 1 at Rollins Studio Theatre, Long Center. www.thelongcenter.org