`Amherst' downplays poet's odd behavior

Review: Tana Hicken is great at capturing an emotional side to Emily Dickinson that appeals to the audience.

March 22, 2002|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

The picture of poet Emily Dickinson created by The Belle of Amherst and by actress Tana Hicken is startlingly robust.

It's a portrait of the artist not as a tormented genius, but as a bit of a scamp. Eccentric, perhaps, but charming. Certainly, someone you might like to know.

And it's a framing that intentionally downplays the poet's famously odd behavior. If Dickinson became a recluse at age 39, never venturing beyond her garden and hiding from visitors, it wasn't because she was fragile. Instead, the script would have us believe that Dickinson had a theatrical streak and enjoyed adding to her public mystique.

The one-actress play running through May 31 at Rep Stage in Columbia is a fascinating, if speculative, character study of the 19th-century author.

Playwright William Luce is on target about at least one thing: Despite the girlish ribbon that Dickinson wore in her hair, despite her rounded Peter Pan collar edged with lace, and her pristine white dress buttoned to her throat, this was a woman with immense force of will.

This is the Massachusetts schoolgirl who resisted great pressure to convert to the Christian revivalist movement, and who, as an adult, stopped going to church in an era when that was tantamount to heresy.

This is the neophyte writer who never once doubted the value of her 1,775 poems, although virtually every editor she submitted them to told her they were unpublishable.

Yet, according to scholars, this is the same woman who did not visit her brother's house for 15 years - although he lived next door - and who refused to allow a doctor to examine her when she was dying from a progressive kidney disease, although he was permitted to peer at her from across the room.

Why did a woman with Dickinson's strikingly bold and unconventional mind choose to live such a circumscribed life?

Perhaps no play or biography ever will posit a wholly satisfying answer to that question; it is enough, perhaps, to point up the contradictions, as The Belle of Amherst does.

The polarities are in Robert Marietta's genteel Victorian set, with its floral couch, bone china tea set and fluted hurricane lamp - and in the neatly folded copy of the Springfield Republican lying on the floor. (Every night, Dickinson read the newspaper aloud to her sister, Lavinia. They enjoyed detailed accounts of local tragedies, the gorier the better.)

They're in the way Hicken lifts her chin and peers beneath her eyelids while acting out conversations with male editors and publishers who seemingly tower over her.

And they're in the way the script incorporates Dickinson's letters. She addressed one august mentor as "Master," and signed herself to another as "your pupil" - all the while spurning their advice.

If anything, Dickinson's enigma is intensified by Luce's decision to limit his play to one actor. When a theater piece has just one character, the audience has just one perspective to draw on, and that perspective is both self-serving and rooted in the past. We see Dickinson explaining why she behaved as she did - or failing to explain. We don't see her in a theatrical present, reacting to the people in her life and to unexpected situations.

Hicken has been portraying Dickinson for many years, and her performance is justly acclaimed. It's a picture of the poet as sometimes sad, but not despairing, as shy but not fearful, and minus the emotional neediness that drove away many of Dickinson's lifelong friends.

It may well be that a view of Emily Dickinson as quaint and quirky is easier to sell to the ticket-buying public than a view of the poet as crazed.

But whether the picture that Hicken creates is historically accurate in every detail is beside the point. What matters is that she gives us a multifaceted, fully believable character.

At every performance, Hicken has to win over the audience. She has to convince us that her character is likable or interesting enough for us to spend two hours listening to her talk.

She succeeds.

Belle of Amherst

Where: Rep Stage, Howard County Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia

When: 8 p.m. Fridays; 2:30 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Sundays; 7 p.m. March 28. Through March 31.

Admission: $10-$20

Call: 410-772-4900

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