“Cleverly orchestrated” would be the exact words to describe The Belle of Amherst. From the play itself to all efforts that have gone into the current Salt Lake City production, everything feels orchestrated to achieve an assortment of ulterior motives.
Thankfully there is just as much good that comes out of the production as there is anything that would raise a skeptic’s questioning eyebrows.
As a candid and thoroughly researched play of Emily Dickinson, William Luce’s The Belle of Amherst lovingly renders a complimentary portrait of one of America’s brilliant poets. In a freely imagined meeting with Dickinson towards her later life, The Belle of Amherst allows audiences to reconnect with Dickinson’s sublime intelligence and may inspire further readings of her work.
But The Belle of Amherst can occasionally feel more concerned with being a star-vehicle for a showy actress than with celebrating a brilliant writer. If you look at the pattern of Luce’s other works, your suspicions would have some strong grounding.
Luce’s theatrical output mostly consists of a series of one-person plays about famous figures in history—John Barrymore, Zelda Fitzgerald, Lillian Hellman—featuring respected actors like Christopher Plummer, Piper Laurie and Zoe Caldwell. Indeed, the combination of Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst proved to be the right vehicle to steer Harris toward a record fifth Tony Award win for acting in 1976.
Although the combination of poetry, historical facts and assumptions is very fascinating when delivered by a capable actress, it can also become tiring just by repetition. Toward the end of the play, Luce’s constant practice of using Dickinson poems to punctuate the more emotional aspects of her life can feel deliberately planned for providing an actress enough juicy material to sink her teeth into.
With the current Salt Lake City production, there’s not only a talented actress to serve up the play’s substance, but enough elaborate scenery to leave both actress and audience chewing for days.
Graciously donated for the production, the historic 1901 McCune mansion on the hill overlooking Main Street proves to be a wonderful, albeit snug, fit for The Belle of Amherst. Although the audience is restricted to the main floor of the mansion and a cramped parlor for the play, just being able to glimpse at the stunning architecture that encompasses Rococo revival, Victorian and Art Nouveau styles is worth the price of admission itself.
With such extravagant surroundings, you might think that Katharine Clark Reilly’s performance as Emily Dickinson would be dwarfed by the scenery in the same way the sets, costumes and the chandelier gobble up actors and dancers in The Phantom of the Opera. But Reilly fits right in with her environment and gives an admirable performance.
Under the direction of veteran actor/director Don Garner, Reilly presents an intelligent and humorous take on Emily Dickinson. Recounting the many high and low points in Dickinson’s life, Reilly comes across as honest, if not entirely realistic.
In such close quarters between actor and audience, Reilly seemed too nervous on opening night to keep eye contact with the individual members of the audience. Even though the premise of the play comes from an imagined visit to the Dickinson household, the lack of direct interaction between Reilly and the audience at times felt like being kept behind a partial guard wall of Plexiglas on an historic house tour.
But then again, Reilly’s predilection to gaze away from the audience could easily be read as a sign of Dickinson’s desires for isolation or being lost in her memories. The subtle changes in Jim Craig and Kristy Davis’ lighting design and the nicely chosen sound effects of chimes, as well as the music by Larry L. Holt and Garth Steck, reinforce this perspective.
As both actress and founder of The Emily Company (one of the play’s producers), it can seem as if Reilly is using The Belle of Amherst more as a showy platform to promote herself in the theater community than as an artistic challenge. And when you discover that the owner of the McCune mansion has the building on the market and is looking for a buyer, the donated use of the building might not seem quite as generous.
But this cynical outlook is all but erased when you consider that 25 percent of each ticket sale will go to The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.
Along with the opening night fund-raiser that drew luminaries such as University of Utah President Bernie Machen and Gerald McRaney from Promised Land and Major Dad, a high-tea matinee was also held as a fund-raiser for the foundation. Who knows? You may find yourself in the society pages of the Tribune or Salt Lake magazine if you catch a performance. So, even if the orchestrations are apparent in The Belle of Amherst, you still have to admire the expert way they were all executed.
The Belle of Amherst plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays until May 1 at the McCune mansion, 200 N. Main Street. For tickets and more information, call Smith’sTix at 467-TIXX.