* * *
Emily Dickinson is not only a great poet but an artistic giant who casts a long shadow across both high and popular American culture. On the one hand, her hauntingly gnomic verses formed the basis for “Letter to the World” (1940), one of Martha Graham’s very best dances, and Aaron Copland’s “Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, ” a song cycle of supreme sublimity. On the other hand, she cavorts wildly and ahistorically throughout “Dickinson,” the Apple TV+ comedy series in which she is transformed into a kind of proto-goth chick who takes opium and has hot sex with her brother’s fiancée.
“The Belle of Amherst,” William Luce’s 1976 one-woman play about Dickinson, falls somewhere in between these distant extremes, if far closer to the former than the latter….
Julie Harris appeared in a PBS version of the play taped at a 1976 Los Angeles performance, and that telecast (which can be streamed on Amazon Prime) has caused her to be indissolubly identified with part and play alike. While “The Belle of Amherst” continues to be performed by regional theater companies all over the U.S. and was revived off Broadway in 2014, nobody ever writes about it without making mention of Harris’s delicate, subdued performance, which is widely regarded as definitive.
You’d think such a play would have been taken up as soon as the Covid-19 pandemic closed American theaters and forced them to resort to streaming video, not least because as a one-hander it presents none of the logistical challenges of an ensemble production. But Palm Beach Dramaworks’ new online version of “The Belle of Amherst,” starring Margery Lowe, jointly produced with Coral Gables’ Actors’ Playhouse and taped without an audience in PBD’s 218-seat theater, appears to be the first one to be webcast since the start of the lockdown….
Not only is this one of the best theatrical webcasts I’ve seen in the past year, exactly comparable in artistic quality and production values to Undermain Theatre’s “St. Nicholas” and the Wilma Theater’s “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” but Ms. Lowe’s performance is superior in certain important ways to that of Julie Harris.
* * *Read the whole thing here.
The trailer for The Belle of Amherst: