An odd duck takes flight
The Belle of Amherst
Sacramento, CA 95814
Emily Dickinson was an odd duck. A talented and innovative world-renowned poet, but an odd duck just the same. This most beloved writer’s quirks and idiosyncrasies, as well as her devotion to poetry and her self-imposed seclusion in her family’s Massachusetts home, are portrayed with much sensitivity in William Luce’s one-woman play The Belle of Amherst.
The Belle, which presents the poet’s life, thoughts and work through snippets of her letters and poems interspersed with some dialogue by Luce, is an intimate portrayal of Dickinson made even more personal at the Sacramento Theatre Company, where they’ve opted to present it on the smaller Pollock Stage.
Jackie Vanderbeck portrays this fiercely private, independent woman with a delicate yet fiery touch. A New York actress who first trod the STC boards in her hometown as a 12-year-old in The Christmas Carol, Vanderbeck carefully depicts the poet’s eccentricities, as well as her independent thinking; she’s a joy to watch as she paints a complex portrait of Dickinson.
She relies on subtle nuances rather than quirky tics that so many actors turn to when embodying someone who was a self-described social oddball as well as a literary genius.
In The Belle, Dickinson’s life is laid out in bursts of thoughts, memories, observations, contents of letters, her diaries and bits of poetry that give us glimpses of her home in Amherst, her various relationships with family members and other authors, and her work as a poet. Playwright Luce has Dickinson meander in and out of stories that cover her life (1830-1886), her work, her rejection by a publisher and her own rejection of a social life by choosing instead to remain in her family home, dressed only in white, conversing only with family members and through various correspondences.
Vanderbeck gives us a Dickinson that is at once both accessible and mysterious. She is working under the expert tutelage of director Janis Stevens, who has performed a number of one-woman shows portraying fascinating women, including Vivien Leigh, Julia Morgan and Maria Callas (in her current outstanding performances in Master Class at Capital Stage). How Stevens managed the emotional and physical undertaking of directing one intense production while performing in another could probably provide fodder for another one-woman play in itself.
And the juxtaposition of two local shows portraying such talented, independent—yet dissimilar—women is a fascinating yin and yang. Callas embraced the world with bravado and extreme temperament, while Dickinson shrunk away from the larger world and into a world of her own, with an introverted, self-examining nature. Yet both have become legends as a result of their artistic endeavors.
Kudos to the design crew, who add to the delicate and intimate story with subtle costumes, lighting and a beautiful set that incorporates Dickinson’s preferred cream colors in the furnishings and wisps of her poetry on the walls and floor.
In the end, it’s Dickinson’s poetry that gives us a true picture into her heart and mind. In The Belle of Amherst, Vanderbeck and Stevens provide the perfect tour guides to let us visit her life for a short while.