‘Belle of Amherst’ journeys into poet’s world

By April 5, 2011

Jackie Vanderbeck stars as poet Emily Dickinson in the Sacramento Theatre Company production of "The Belle of Amherst." Courtesy photo

Jackie Vanderbeck stars as poet Emily Dickinson in the Sacramento Theatre Company production of "The Belle of Amherst." Courtesy photo


What: “The Belle of Amherst”

Where: Sacramento Theatre Company, 1419 H St., Sacramento

When: Through May 8; showtimes are 12:30 and 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 6:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays

Tickets: $34-$38 general, $29-$33 seniors, $15 students; http://www.sactheatre.org or (916) 443-6722

The secluded life of Emily Dickinson presents both a challenge and an opportunity for playwright and performer. Between her birth in 1830 and her death in 1886, she rarely left her hometown of Amherst, Mass. — indeed, for much of her adult life, she rarely strayed very far from her family home. She never married, and she didn’t entertain a lot of friends.

Dickinson focused her considerable intelligence and energy on her writing — composing nearly 1,800 poems, in addition to many letters, and a diary. Women faced an uphill battle in the literary world in those days, and only a handful of Dickinson’s poems were published in her lifetime, and editors tended to alter her work to suite the rigid poetic standards of the time.

But Dickinson’s work became better known after her death, and her reputation has steadily risen through the years, to the point that she’s now considered an important American poet. Modern editors have restored her unusual spelling and punctuation. Composers, like the Bay Area’s John Adams — who drew on Dickinson in his landmark 1980 piece for chorus and orchestra “Harmonium,” recorded nearly 30 years ago by the San Francisco Symphony — are attracted to her probing verses about death and immortality.

Playwrights are, too. William Luce wrote “The Belle of Amherst” as a one-woman show in the 1970, drawing on Dickson’s poems, letters and journals. The play became closely identified with Julie Harris, who won a Tony Award for her role as Dickinson, then toured with the play, and later made a TV version for PBS.

The Sacramento Theatre Company, which is focusing on American classics, is staging a new production starring Jackie Vanderbeck. She’s a Sacramento native now living in New York, who appeared as Roxanne in STC’s chivalrous production of “Cyrano de Bergerac” a few years ago, and has done a few Music Circus shows as well.

“The Belle of Amherst” is a long way from those shows. In this play, there’s no swordplay and no singing. Vanderbeck has her dark hair in a tight bun, and wears a white dress (leaving only her hands and head visible) throughout the play — as was Dickinson’s custom as an adult. As a result, facial expressions and hand gestures become all the more important in this production — fortunately, it’s staged in STC’s 90-seat Pollock Stage, which is small enough that everyone in the house can see what Vanderbeck is doing.

And through some two hours alone on stage (with a break for intermission) Vanderbeck conveys Dickinson’s enjoyment at playing the elusive recluse who becomes the object of community curiosity. Vanderbeck also taps into Dickinson’s reverence for words — she caresses them as she speaks them, particularly when they come from one of Dickinson’s poems. And she illuminates the theme that Dickinson’s rather solitary life was not necessarily a lonely life.

The show is directed by Janis Stevens, who did this show while starring in Capital Stage’s production of “Master Class.” In that show, Stevens plays operatic diva Maria Callas — who determinedly sought to become opera’s leading female star, and whose imperious public persona was very different from Dickinson’s reclusiveness.

But Callas and Dickinson also have some things in common — most notably, they gave their all for their art, and endured some heartbreak in the process. And Stevens picks up on that quite well.

The set, by Morgan McCarthy, features samples of Dickinson’s work written in chalk on the walls and floors, so that as Vanderbeck moves back and forth on stage, we’re constantly reminded of what Dickinson was thinking in her interior world.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or (530) 747-8055. Comment on this story at www.davisenterprise.com

Jeff Hudson

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