THE BELLE OF AMHERST
Chicago Cooperative Stage
The Belle of Amherst is a one-person show about Emily Dickinson — the woman, her life, her poetry. Perhaps you’ve never cared for Dickinson’s poetry. In that case, I can tell you right now, you’re sure to care even less about her life, especially as it’s revealed in this play. But let’s assume you’re crazy about Emily Dickinson. You can’t get enough of her. And you’re able to perceive a profound difference between her work and the poetry of, say, Rod McKuen. Well, chances are this production will let you down, and you’ll walk out feeling like Emily got the short end of the stick.
There are two actors playing Emily Dickinson in this show, although the script only calls for one. This dubious innovation by director John Bettenbender is explained in the program as an effort to be true “not just to the letter of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, but to the spirit of Emily Dickinson’s heart as well.” That’s all very well, if not particularly coherent, but it doesn’t make the truth any less opaque. The bottom line is that The Belle of Amherst is a star vehicle, a tour de force, a rambling monologue requiring nothing less than a consummate, charismatic actor to pull it all together. And neither alone nor in concert do Jacqueline Verdeyen and/or Elaine Behr manage to trap a single blob of mercurial truth about the belle of Amherst.
Verdeyen plays the older of the two Emilys — the spirit, or the heart, or whatever — and she does most of the talking. Behr’s Dickinson is the poet; she does the writing. Beyond this basic distinction of duties, the whole rationale for having two actors playing one character becomes rather vague. The lines are parceled out in an almost random way, and Behr makes up for having fewer lines by complementing Verdeyen’s speeches with nods, raised eyebrows, and some half dozen facial expressions meant, I suppose, to show Emily Dickinson’s total agreement with herself.
Of the two Emilys, Behr’s is the more colorful. She is also the more ludicrous. Behr’s Dickinson is enthralled, perky, joyously thrilled by each and every thing. Mr. Bluebird sits on her shoulder. And as for being a poet, Behr’s characterization is a case of Gidget Goes Iambic. Verdeyen is also quite unnaturally excitable, but since her Dickinson is older she is more subdued and nostalgic. Verdeyen also projects a self-amused quality, and her attempts to create a rapport with the audience seem to ask them to share that amusement. It feels uncomfortably needy. It’s as if Dickinson were some solitude-crazed spinster bent on cornering you and boring you to death.
So, what makes Emily Dickinson tick? Nature, poetry, and, in her later years, death. Dickinson talks a lot about nature: snakes, birds, flowers, the seasons of the year, bees, more bees, cats, the aurora borealis, you name it. It got to the point where I wanted to wring the nectar out of her. Were there some suggestion as to why Dickinson was such a pantheist, I might not have felt this way. But when she (Jacqueline Verdeyen) said, “I wish I were just a blade of grass,” the first thought that jumped into my mind was, who’s stopping you?
This play also features a brisk anthology of Dickinson’s poetry, which may appeal to the diehard fan. Dim light is shed on what fascinates Dickinson about poetry. She revels in vocabulary (“There’s a word to lift your hat to”), but otherwise there’s only her enthusiasm for doing what she’s gotta do. Far greater dramatic focus is given to how Dickinson responds to rejection letters — a sad tale that somehow doesn’t elicit much empathy. Even the poetry itself often suffers from the dramatic rendition. The most absurd reading of all comes toward the end of the play, when Behr lavishes on death the same childlike exuberance she feels for bees. “Because I could not stop for death [gee whiz], he kindly stopped for me.”
Death. You get a hefty helping of death in the second act. There’s some weeping and snorkeling over the death of Dickinson’s father. But this soon gives way to happy memories, including an intentionally comic piece of “pandemonium” incited by the exhilarating occasion of the father coming home for lunch. Ah, the joy of the simple things in life. Then there’s little Gilbert’s death, whoever he is. “October is a mighty month, but in it little Gilbert died.” Finally, there’s Dickinson’s anticipation of her own death, which is curiously expressed in terms of both her love of nature and her fear of criticism: “For love of her [nature], judge tenderly of me.”
The Emily Dickinson who emerges, such as she does, is narcissistic and none too appealing. The truth is hard to sort out from the muddle of the script, the production, and the speculation of who Emily Dickinson really was. It’s impossible that she could have been the airhead variously characterized in this show. There’s no foundation to either Dickinson — take your pick — portrayed here. Her sorrow and remorse are a melodramatic plea for sympathy. She seems to crave attention. This craving is underscored, in production, when one or the other of the Emilys holds hands with an audience member, passes out poetry, and asks questions without waiting for answers. The impression is that the audience is just there to validate Dickinson’s wonderfulness.
You need at least three things to make a one-person show work: an excellent script, a powerful actor who has a rapport with the audience, and a subject that merits the audience’s attention. Point one is arguable here, and this Belle of Amherst totally misses the second point. As to the last one, your curiosity about Emily Dickinson’s life would be better served by reading a biography.