The Belle of Amherst | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

The Belle of Amherst 

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THE BELLE OF AMHERST, City Lit Theater Company. Emily Dickinson's life is well and warmly remembered in William Luce's 1976 one-woman play. Though considered a cracked belle by her prosaic neighbors, the poet-recluse is intensely at home in the family manse, where she penned poems on the backs of envelopes. Besides her verse, she delivers equally pithy anecdotes about her protective brother, spinster sister, emotionally evasive father, and Charles Wadsworth, for two decades the unrequited love of her life.

Under the direction of Martha Adrienne, Karen Pratt offers an exquisitely nuanced, word-crazed Dickinson, eggshell brittle and adamant tough. Pratt delivers every free-associated moment with radiant immediacy, as surprised by her accidental insights as we are delighted to share them. The poems flow naturally from real-life talk, as Dickinson delivers a recipe for black cake, local gossip, gardening tips, and the heartbreak of her father's last moments. In Pratt's interpretation, this emotional landscape is as palpable as the fall vista outside the parlor windows. "My business is to love," Dickinson declares--which means, among other things, cultivating her heliotropes and adoring her niece and nephew.

Everything in City Lit's pitch-perfect production testifies to Dickinson's pleasure in the world her poems catalog so powerfully. Seen in solitude but not in isolation, this enigmatic figure gives her art new life.

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