By their nature, most solo plays require a suspension of disbelief the very second the subject on stage begins addressing the audience. Why are we here? Why is this person talking to us? Admitted, rarely has such a situation seemed more false than in William Luce’s 1976 biodrama The Belle of Amherst, in which the ultra-reclusive Massachusetts poet Emily Dickinson acts a chatty hostess for 105 minutes, sharing everything with us “strangers” from the most intimate details of her romantic life to her recipe for “black cake.” Really, dude?
Fortunately, in Steve Cosson’s engaging Off-Broadway revival at the Westside Theatre, British actress Joely Richardson (the spitting image of her mother, Vanessa Redgrave) is so captivating that these nagging questions are quickly rendered trivial, and the work’s inherent and often questionable sentimentality rarely overwhelms us. Richardson’s Dickinson is only rarely morbid or even morose. Instead, she is often pleasingly conversational, slightly gossipy and wonderfully literal, especially in her recitations of Dickinson’s unconventional, moving poems, which Luce slides in and out of the text with remarkable dexterity. It’s an equal testament to Richardson’s skill as an actress that we aren’t always aware that Dickinson has slipped into one of her creations, until a few lines into a poem.
While most of us have heard some of Dickinson’s poetry, we may know little about the woman who wrote it. Fortunately, Luce ably covers the bases of his subject’s life (whom we meet at age 53, just a few years before her death), giving us a well-rounded portrait of Dickinson, without being too pedantic. We learn of her relationships with her various family members (the closest of whom were her sister Lavinia and sister-in-law Susan), her struggles to get her poetry published because of her penchant for strange structure and non-traditional rhymes, and her few, doomed relationships with unattainable and unavailable men. We are also privy to a few “secrets” (that she deliberately dressed in white all year long to lend herself an air of mystery) as well as some very mundane minutiae, such as her strong dislike of her sister’s cats.
Cosson manages to keep the proceedings from becoming too static, as Richardson (garbed in William Ivey Long’s long white dress) moves around Antje Ellerman’s attractive set, which represents the interior of Dickinson’s home, “The Homestead,” along with suggesting a little bit of its exterior. But in her finest moments, Richardson can simply sit on the bare floor and with just the inflections of her voice transport us back two centuries, delighted to be given the attention of this unlikely Belle.