`Belle' is fine portrait of a poet

Theater: In "Belle of Amherst," the reclusive Emily Dickinson is portrayed as a strong-minded, independent woman.

Howard Live

March 21, 2002|By William Hyder | William Hyder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's hard to say how much a performance owes to the actor who gives it and how much to the director who shapes it. In Rep Stage's production of The Belle of Amherst, it doesn't matter. Actor Tana Hicken and her husband, Donald Hicken, who directed, have worked together to produce an impressive portrait of Emily Dickinson.

Dickinson (1830-1886) spent her life in a Massachusetts college town. As an adult, she never left her house but divided her time between performing everyday domestic chores and writing inward and personal poetry. Only a few of her poems were published (anonymously) in her lifetime, but eventually her work won the high reputation it enjoys now.

Author William Luce has described his play as "the inner drama of a poet's consciousness." Dickinson has been thought of as eccentric, agoraphobic, even alienated from reality. Luce, however, presents her as a woman who knows her own mind. Within the first few minutes, she tells the audience that her eccentricities are calculated - mere acts of mischief done to provoke her small-minded neighbors.

This may not be a correct diagnosis, but it was a shrewd decision. Luce wrote the part for a star, Julie Harris, and you won't get a star to do a one-character show about a woman who doesn't know what she's doing.

The script presents a panorama of Dickinson's outer and inner lives, with many of her poems neatly worked in. She plays directly to the audience, slipping in and out of scenes in which she talks with and reacts to the people in her life.

We hear about her childhood and school years, her father - conventional and dominating but occasionally surprising, her distant mother, her beloved brother Austin and her younger and prettier sister Lavinia. There's a lot of small-town detail: a fire in the neighborhood, the arrival of a circus, the malicious talk of the local gossip.

Dickinson gives us her recipe for black cake and chats about her garden. She reminisces about a couple of incipient romances and reveals her one real love, a clergyman with a deep voice and (in her mind) a "Christ-like" aspect. She saw him only twice, 20 years apart, and corresponded with him in between.

Through it all, we see Dickinson's life - it can't be called a career as a poet. She puts her faith in Thomas Wentworth Higginson, editor of Atlantic Monthly, but he judges her poems by the conventions of the day and crushes her hopes of publication.

She never seeks another opinion and rationalizes: "Publication is the auction of the mind of man." But she goes on writing: "My business is to sing! What difference does it make if no one listens?"

Tana Hicken's characterization is subtle, meticulous and rich in suppressed emotion. The Dickinson of the first act is prim and a little nervous, but with a vein of sly humor. When reminiscing about her youth, she slips into a girlish demeanor. The second act finds her mature and confident. She has found herself, chosen her path. In the final minutes, we see her aging and ailing. Hicken brings out every facet of this demanding role.

The backstage work is as fine as the acting. Sound designer Sean Pringle sets the mood with early 19th-century pianoforte music. Robert Marietta's set reflects the orderly New England life: on one side is Dickinson's bedroom, with a tall lace-curtained window; on the other side is the family parlor, with a balancing tall doorway. A backdrop shows the open sky with a wispy cloud, suggesting the freedom of Dickinson's spirit.

In a collaboration of Marietta and lighting designer Marianne Meadows, the backdrop imperceptibly takes on different colors during the performance, reflecting the changing emotional moods. Toward the end, as the script hints of approaching death, there is a shadowy suggestion of desolate, bare-limbed trees.

The emotional climax of The Belle of Amherst is Dickinson's relationship with the clergyman she considered her only love. If there is something lacking in the show, it is here. The author never satisfactorily indicates what there was about this man that captivated her, except for a deep voice. That hardly seems enough for Emily Dickinson, whose own worth the play makes so clear.

Rep Stage at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, presents "The Belle of Amherst" in Smith Theatre through March 31. Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. An additional performance is scheduled at 7 p.m. March 28. Tickets are $10 to $20; students pay $10, and senior citizens receive a $2 discount. Students with an adult can receive free admission. Information: 410- 772-4900.

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