Review: THE BELLE OF AMHERST at Court Theatre

By Elizabeth Ellis

For the longest time, I associated the poems of Emily Dickinson primarily with the fact that you could sing them to familiar songs like Amazing Grace and Yankee Doodle Dandy: “Because I could not stop for Death -/He kindly stopped for me -/The Carriage held but just Ourselves -/And Immortality”. Like most people, I also thought of Dickinson as a tiny shadow of an actual person, a sad, white-clad woman holed up living a dry and solitary life in a crumbling mansion in Amherst, Massachusetts. Happily, the magnificent Court Theatre production of William Luce’s one-woman play, THE BELLE OF AMHERST, has obliterated these misconceptions. With a sensational performance by Kate Fry and wonderfully exuberant direction from Sean Graney, this BELLE OF AMHERST shows a delightful Emily Dickinson full of life, imagination, great joy, and phosphorescence.

Dickinson, the daughter of a prominent Amherst family (her grandfather helped found Amherst College), returned to her family’s home after attending Mount Holyoke, and chose to remain isolated there for the rest of her life. She conducted her friendships via letters, wore only white garments, and wrote and wrote and wrote. Though she had nearly 2,000 poems to her credit, only around 10 were published in her lifetime. Her work didn’t fit the poetic standards of the mid-19th century, and was considered unconventional at best and unpublishable at worst. Only after Dickinson’s death in 1886 did her sister, Lavinia, find her well-hidden trove of poems, and it wasn’t until the 1950’s that Dickinson’s work was finally published largely unedited.

Within 30 seconds after Kate Fry takes the stage as Dickinson, she creates a warm and strong connection with the audience, whom she addresses directly. Fry infuses her Dickinson with charm, intelligence, a wicked sense of humor, and an absolute zest for life. She snarks on her neighbors, divulges the recipe for her fantastic signature black cake, and muses on her fascination with death and immortality. This is not a quiet spinster who vanishes into the wallpaper; this is a woman who, more than anything, demonstrates an ebullient wonder at the depth and breadth the world around her has to offer. Fry’s Dickinson takes such pleasure in the shape and feeling of words (“sacred beings”), how she can craft with them, and express her deepest thoughts. At multiple points in the script, the dialogue turns to some of Dickinson’s actual poetry; Fry executes the transitions between the two seamlessly. While Dickinson never married, she did possess romantic longings, which Fry embodies beautifully. When Dickinson jumps on her bed in a sudden and passionate memory of a potential suitor, Fry brings such intensity to the moment that you can almost hear her man’s footsteps rushing up the stairs to meet her. As Fry moves through the latter stages of Dickinson’s life, and she realizes she has fewer years ahead of her than behind her, the beginnings of a sense of melancholy start to appear, which add even more humanity to her character.

Kate Fry. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Sean Graney’s keen direction brings depth and energy to a significant contributor to American literature who seems more an enigma than a flesh and blood woman. While Samantha Jones’s costume design is limited to three dresses, each one (especially the signature white dress) perfectly embodies Dickinson at three different points in her life. Arnel Sancianco’s gorgeous set recalls the glory days of a gracious family home, and Dickinson’s all-white bedroom mirrors the white dresses she wore almost all the time. Mike Durst’s beautiful lighting enhances every changing mood, both in Dickinson and her poems.

The late great Julie Harris made her mark as Dickinson in THE BELLE OF AMHERST, winning both a Tony Award and a Grammy Award for her portrayals. Kate Fry brings such heart and vivacity to the role that she has made it her own, and her stellar interpretation stands beside Harris’ any day.

About author

Elizabeth Ellis

Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.