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Theater Review: The Belle of Amherst

The success or failure of a one-person show rests almost entirely on a single set of shoulders, and Kathleen Keenan carried off The Belle of Amherst with grace and vigor. For two hours, she opened a window into the remarkable life of Emily Dickinson, and captivated the Lost Nation Theater audience with a brilliant, spirited performance.

William Luce's play about the reclusive 19th-century poet challenges an actress on several fronts. There's a stunning amount of material to master -- even Julie Harris, the role's originator, sometimes performed an abridged version. Yet Keenan never seemed to be searching her memory for a forgotten passage. In fact, she was so comfortable with her lines that she seemed to be inhabiting the text rather than simply acting it.

Playing a historical figure has its own dangers. The audience expects a reasonable degree of physical resemblance: Danny DeVito could never play Abe Lincoln for anything but laughs. In the case of the beloved, enigmatic Dickinson, theater-goers may come to the show with preconceived ideas about her life and work. By the end of the evening, however, Luce's text and Keenan's convincing interpretation painted a fresh, delightfully unexpected picture.

Dickinson's poetry was her "Letter to the World/That never wrote to Me." She lived the last 25 years of her life in seclusion at the Homestead, her father's comfortable home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Dressed always in diaphanous bridal white, even in winter, she rarely spoke with anyone outside her immediate family, although she would bake for neighbors and enclose cryptic notes. Yet she kept up vigorous long-distance correspondences, writing more than 10,000 letters. And she wrote 1775 poems, kept in a box by her bed. Only a handful were published during her lifetime.

Why Dickinson (1830-1886) withdrew from the world has been the subject of scholarly debate, feminist theorizing and psychobiography. The key men in Emily's life did treat her poorly: her demanding father, who authored an essay, "On Keeping Women in Their Place"; the editor who strung her along and monkeyed with her meter rather than publishing her poems; and the unrequited love of her life who heartlessly rejected her. Marriage eluded her, and women of her social class did not work outside the home.

But The Belle of Amherst asserts that Dickinson assumed the role of isolated eccentric as an act of power. "People in small towns must have their local characters," she confides to the audience. "I enjoy the game ... I do it on purpose. The white dress, the seclusion. It's all deliberate." Dickinson's poetry became her alternate way of being in the world. She used words and imagery and rhyme to process emotion and experience. "I travel the road into my soul all the time," she says.

The play takes place one afternoon at the Homestead when Dickinson, at age 53, is looking back on her life. She takes the audience into her confidence, almost giddy with pent-up desire to share her small triumphs and large sorrows, as she recalls past events, reenacts stories and recites poems.

Keenan's portrayal had many strengths as she smoothly shifted through the play's demanding gears. Her greatest asset was not overdoing anything: Her comic timing was excellent; she employed wonderful facial expressions and vocal emphasis without hamming it up; she cried real tears without rending garments or gnashing teeth.

Keenan paused occasionally to let an important line sink in, such as, "It's best to abandon paths when you find they lead nowhere." And she skillfully brought to life the other people in Dickinson's past, sometimes by imitating them, but most often just by showing the poet's side of their conversations. She gave the audience a rich sense that despite her isolation, Dickinson lived fully and loved deeply.

Seamless production elements supported Keenan's performance. Donna Stafford's elegant set, furnished with colorful antiques, was a gem of style and design. The blend of Victorian and traditional New England pieces demonstrated the household's prosperity. It also illustrated the tension -- in a college town like Amherst and in the well-educated Dickinson family -- between fashionable, forward-thinking influences and more austere, Puritanical roots.

The two-room set consisted of Dickinson's bedroom and the family parlor. The layout provided a variety of places in which to do scenes, without impeding Keenan's flow of movement. Director Kim Bent used the space in a balanced and thoughtful way. He steered Keenan skillfully between two dangerous shoals that can shipwreck a one-person play: Too Much Running Around and Master Thespian Stands and Delivers. His direction was uncluttered and restrained, the better to let his star shine.

Lighting designer John B. Forbes and musical designer Tim Tavcar plied their trades gently to enhance Keenan's presentation without intruding on it. When Dickinson flashed to a scene from her past, the general lighting dimmed and a spot focused on her. The transitions were subtle and not cheesy. The aural support was also unobtrusive; period music softly underscored moments of emotional intensity in key scenes. Like the lighting, it served the work without drawing undue attention to itself.

A few details of Keenan's physical portrayal did prove to be minor, recurring annoyances. The base volume of her voice was too soft at times. While her polished diction meant that the words were always intelligible, audience members with less-than-perfect hearing sometimes had to strain to hear her.

There were two slightly jarring incongruities in Keenan's appearance as well. Her wavy red hair, rather unsuccessfully tamed, was at odds with the play's repeated emphasis on Dickinson's "plain" looks and brown hair. It was somewhat disconcerting when Keenan, as Dickinson, referred directly to these when showing the audience "her" picture: the famous daguerreotype of the real Emily Dickinson, whose dark 'do was as severe as a New England winter.

Keenan also looked too young to be playing the poet at 53, which in the 1880s was a fairly advanced age. The play mentions a recent bout of ill health, and Dickinson was just 56 when she died. It was less a question of painting on fake wrinkles and gray hair than of physical movement: Keenan embodied her subject rather too vivaciously. Just as a youthful Romeo shouldn't be hobbling around in support hose swigging Metamucil, the elder Emily Dickinson should have been a step slower than Keenan portrayed her.

These minor physical issues, however, did not detract from the play's overall emotional impact. Far more important was how Keenan conveyed Dickin-son's vivacity of spirit. "To find that phosphorescence, that light within, that's the genius behind poetry," her character says. And that's the genius of Keenan's performance: capturing Dickinson's light, and captivating the audience with her life.

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Elisabeth Crean

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