Maureen Silliman’s performance is a tour de force and well worth seeing
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is one of America’s leading poets. She wrote some 1800 poems, of which fewer than a dozen were published in her lifetime. She was also a prolific correspondent for most of her life, even as she cultivated a reputation for being an eccentric. Two River Theatre in Red Bank brings Emily Dickinson to life in its revival of The Belle of Amherst, a one-woman show by prizewinning playwright William Luce.
Mr. Luce’s play, framed as a rare visit with the reclusive poet, touches on events throughout Miss Dickinson’s life. It is mostly composed of excerpts from her letters and diaries, liberally sprinkled with selections from her voluminous poetic catalogue. From these sources he creates an admiring portrait of the artist. Director Robert Rechnitz and actress Maureen Silliman take on the task of conjuring a living, breathing Dickinson from her torrent of words. For the most part, they succeed. Miss Silliman’s Dickinson is a delightful, imaginative hostess, especially proud of her skill in baking, someone that is a pleasure to visit.
The only cloud on Miss Dickinson’s artistic horizon comes from literary critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Throughout a lengthy correspondence, and during his only visit to her home, Higginson discouraged Dickinson’s attempts to publish collections of her poems. Her use of rhyme scheme and punctuation and her choice of subject matter were deemed improper for poetic standards of the day. However, the Emily Dickinson of Luce, Rechnitz, and Silliman has the old-fashioned virtue of fortitude along with a perceptive, intelligent mind. She continues to write her poetry in her own individual voice, posthumously receiving the full recognition of her artistry denied her during her life.
The Belle of Amherst is a gently spirited show, one that can both confirm one’s opinions of Emily Dickinson and come up with surprising facets of her character. Maureen Silliman’s performance is a tour de force and well worth seeing. One will be charmed by making the trip to the Two River Theatre in Red Bank to pay a visit to The Belle of Amherst.
The Belle of Amherst is presented by Two River Theatre at the Rechnitz Theatre in Red Bank through May 5, 2019. For tickets and information, visit tworivertheater.org.