MyStoryYourStory: ‘The Belle of Amherst’ – invictus estival

Apparently with no surprise, To any happy Flower, The Frost beheads it at its play, In accidental power. The blond Assassin passes on. The Sun proceeds unmoved, To measure off another Day, For an Approving God. �  �Apparently with no surprise� by Emily Dickinson

If you purchase a copy of �The Belle of Amherst: A One-Woman Play� by Luce Williams, you�ll possess the wonder and wit, the heart and soul of poet Emily Dickinson [1830-1886]�nothing could be finer, rest assured.

Unless, of course, you have the privilege of being on the receiving end of her dramatic portrayal, as I recently did.

Sitting in an audience of a hundred or so in sweltering heat last Friday evening in Sioux City, I peer onto the outdoor stage and quietly wonder what to expect.

It isn�t long before the acclaimed Broadway actress Barbara Kingsley dramatizes with grace and poise the woman behind the poetry. Donning an all-white, ankle-length alb wrapped in a tea-length apron, Kingsley floats about the marble stage, now transformed into a garden paradise adorned with baskets and bouquets of flowers, a potting bench, turn-of-the-century wicker furniture and Dickinson�s vibrant imagination.

In this one-woman play, Kingsley introduces Dickinson�s neurotic, somewhat manic brilliance through the poet�s passions and poems.

Rightfully placed in the poet�s garden and throughout her solitary private space, �The Belle of Amherst� is an inspiring biographical portrait of one of America's greatest literary figures. Amazing as it sounds, almost all of her nearly 1,800 poems were not published until after her death in 1886.

Through anecdotal revelations of the poet�s psyche, sprinkled with Dickinson�s exuberance for nature, especially flowers, Kingsley brings the poet to life.

And as the drama unfolds, the smoky veil of Victorian life is lifted, exposing the humor and pretense that so amused Dickinson.

Kingsley handily exudes eccentricities that hide within Dickinson�s plain and private life as the actress becomes a lovely contagion of sorts, infecting her audience.

While many of her poems deal with death and immortality, Dickinson expertly personifies the most elemental characteristics of nature as emissaries of our own souls.

It is less the topic and more the packaging of Dickinson that touched me. Her unbridled commitment to writing down ideas as they present themselves mimics my own practice.  Given to cleaning and cooking ordered by her father, she quips, �A soapy hand must learn to grip the pen or the rhyme will go down the drain.�

Dramatizing Dickinson�s uninterrupted attraction to the imperial qualities of rocks, flowers, trees and grass, Kingsley�s character takes us on a pilgrim�s journey to a deeper proverbial consciousness. �Nature is a haunted house,� she states, �but art is a house that wants to be haunted.�

Proudly confident in herself as she lives her life in a reclusive realm, Dickinson touts, �I am proof of who I am.�

The audience is introduced to the poet�s distinctive lexicon, including terms as foreign-sounding as �estival� (belonging to or appearing in summer), �tyrian� (a color intermediate between red and blue), �coltsfoot� (a Eurasian plant of the daisy family) and invictus (Latin for unconquerable or undefeated), among many others.

One moment, Kingsley�s portrayal delights and entertains with the poet�s personifications and the next, she astounds while profoundly illuminating topics as taboo and mysterious as grief.

As though foretelling the grand total of our collective losses, Dickinson purports, �Sometimes, grief is so deep and solid that all we can do is say, yes, to it.�

Perhaps the most powerful residue of �Belle of Amherst� is Kingsley�s skillful depiction of Dickinson�s soulful quips on subjects rare in our twenty-first century way of life. Here, as she so expertly does throughout the play, the actress gives voice to the poet�s depth with such subtlety as: �Tenderness has not a date. It comes and overwhelms.�

Kingsley�s portrayal of Emily Dickinson is both rare and wonderful.  For all who have the privilege of witnessing it walk away speechless and stunned by such theatrical purity and grace.

Broadway has arrived, indeed.

2011 � Copyright Paula Damon.

A resident of Southeast South Dakota, Paula Bosco Damon is a national award-winning columnist. Her writing has won first-place in competitions of the National Federation of Press Women, South Dakota Press Women and Iowa Press Women. In the 2009 and 2010 South Dakota Press Women Communications Contest, her columns took five first-place awards. To contact Paula, email boscodamonpaula@gmail, follow her blog at and find her on FaceBook.

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