The private life of the classical American poet, Emily Dickinson, is the subject of William Luce‘s one-actor play “The Belle of Amherst,” which was a surprise hit when it premiered in 1976 (116 performances), with Julie Harris in the title role.
Harris won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play, and won a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Recording. She also starred in the PBS production of the play — which will be the second show of the Elite Theatre Company of Oxnard’s 2022 Main Stage Season.
The production stars the actor and choreographer, Anna Kotula, and is directed by Steve Grumette, artistic director of the Ojai Film Festival, and is a reprise of the acclaimed Rubicon, Namba Arts, and Ojai Art Center productions.
Based on Emily Dickinson’s life from 1830 to 1886, “The Belle of Amherst” is set in her family home and uses Dickinson’s diaries, letters and poems to recreate encounters with close family, friends and acquaintances who significantly influenced her poetry.
Although the play does a fine job of dramatizing certain aspects of Dickinson’s personality — her solitude, her critical intelligence, her passionate devotion to words — but leaves other sides of her infinite complexity to be gleaned from reading her poems, those ragged abstractions that are among the greatest verses ever produced on these shores.
That said, if the play sends you to the poems, it has done as much as any biography can hope to do.
In form, Dickinson’s poems are based on Protestant hymns, with their four-line stanzas and terse proclamations, but she is not a religious poet. Yet, as a New Englander, whether or not she has ceased to believe, she remains a Calvinist. Call her, if you must call her anything, a Yankee mystic.
“No rack can torture me,
My soul’s at liberty,
Behind this mortal bone
There knits a bolder one”
“The Belle of Amherst” plays at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday, now through March 13, at the Elite Theater, 2731 Victoria Ave., Oxnard. Tickets are available online at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-belle-of-amherst-tickets-269208508897.
Note: For all productions, audition members, volunteers, and actors must present proof of vaccination against COVID-19 or an officially administered negative COVID-19 test (within the previous 72 hours) along with a photo ID.
Regardless of vaccination status, cast and crew members will be required to wear a mask in compliance with current mandates.
— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at email@example.com. The opinions expressed are his own.