“The Belle of Amherst,” opening on Friday, Oct. 11, stars Jennifer King, the newly appointed chairperson of Arts and Humanities at Napa Valley College and the chairperson of the theater department since 2007.
It’s a one-woman show in which King becomes Emily Dickinson, the reclusive, introspective 19th century poet. The play opened in last spring at Sonoma Arts live, and King and her director Sharon Winegar, have brought the play to NVC for its second run.
Discussing what she learned about Dickinson in preparation for this play, King said, “I think that first of all we think of her as this old tragic maid, and what we’re finding now is that that is not who she was. She was this woman who you think of someone who had no sex life who was just sitting in her room writing. We paint her as this very tragic picture.”
“What is starting to emerge is that we found her letters and that she was involved with her brother’s wife. So she was bisexual; she had male lovers and female lovers. Just because she didn’t get married doesn’t mean she didn’t have a full life.”
It’s Dickinson’s genius as a writer, however, that attracted King to this play. “One of the best things is being able to recite her poems,” she said. “As an actor, it’s transcendent to be able to say her poems. I literally go somewhere. When I say them, it’s the most gorgeous experience.”
There is a power in telling a story that may or may not be true, but is true for that time in the theater. The power of that, an actor as medium to another plane, is what tantalizes King about this show, and about her position in the theater in general.
The play was written by William Luce, who also wrote “Barrymore” a one-man show about the actor John Barrymore, who was known for his alcoholism just as much as his acting career. Years ago, King directed a friend of hers in a production of “Barrymore,” so “Belle” brings her experience full circle.
Luce is known for writing one-person shows. “The Belle of Amherst” was his first. But he followed that up with “Bronte,” in 1982 about the writer Charlotte Brontë. In 1984, he wrote “The Last Flapper” was about Zelda Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife. Then in 1986, he wrote “Lillian” about Lillian Hellman. In 1991, there was “Lucifer’s Child” which was based on the life of Karen Blixen, the Danish author who wrote under the pen name Isak Dinesen and was the subject of Sydney Pollack’s 1985 movie, “Out of Africa.”
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When I saw King’s first run of “Belle” at Sonoma Arts Live, the loneliness of Dickinson’s existence was apparent. Her reclusiveness that made the exaltation of her poetry all the more poignant. But what is becoming clear through further scholarship that she was anything but lonely.
She was emotionally involved with Charles Wadsworth, a minister in Philadelphia, which is quite a distance from Amherst, Mass. But through her letters, their love affair was passionate. It showed that while Dickinson’s exterior may have been solitary and reserved, her inner life was florid.
The Sonoma production consisted of circle of antique furniture: a window seat through which she viewed the street; a chest where she kept her poems and papers — notably a rejection letter from the Atlantic Monthly and a writing desk where she did her work. All of these were in their original brown wood grain.
For the Napa production, all the props have been painted white. Including her white dress, King said, the only color is the flower on the parlor table.
Winegar, the director of the show, wanted King’s Dickinson to inhabit a cloud, a heavenly realm where the purity of her poetry could be appreciated, unadorned by the trappings of her 19th century surroundings. The choice couldn’t be a more appropriate refinement, given the solipsism of the play — how the entire thing is Dickinson in her head, talking to herself, though sometimes to the audience. She invites us in, and when you go, you will be welcomed.
King’s portrayal of Dickinson’s mysterious genius makes for a compelling evening of live theater.
“The Belle of Amherst” runs on Oct. 11, 12, 18 and 19 at 7 p.m. with Sunday matinees on Oct. 13 and 20 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 at performingartsnapavalley.org.