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‘ER’s’ Crawford relishes chance to play Emily Dickinson

Interplayers’ production of ‘The Belle of Amherst’ begins Friday

If you remember high school English class, you remember Emily Dickinson.

Yet Ellen Crawford , aka Nurse Lydia Wright on NBC’s “ER,” is better acquainted with the famed 19th century poet than most.

That’s because Crawford has “become” Emily Dickinson not just once, but many times, in the one-woman show “The Belle of Amherst.”

Crawford has played this role twice before at the Public Theatre in Lewiston-Auburn, Maine, and will reprise it at Spokane’s Interplayers Theatre beginning tonight.

When her director in Maine first asked her to play the part about a decade ago, she remembers her reaction: fear.

“I thought it would be kind of terrifying to be onstage by myself for two hours,” said Crawford. “But I believe in doing things that will challenge you and that you can be a little afraid of, so I finally said, ‘Yes, I’ll do it.’ ”

She discovered that it was somewhat terrifying from a technical standpoint. For one thing, she had thousands of lines to memorize.

But what glorious lines.

“It is such a gorgeous, gorgeous show, with such gorgeous language,” said Crawford. “It’s funny, at times tragic, and the life force that Emily Dickinson writes about is thrilling to play.”

Crawford realized that Dickinson did not deserve her reputation as a somewhat gloomy poet – based on her famous poems about death – but was instead a lively and spirited figure who embraces all of life.

“Her zest for life is what I found so exciting,” said Crawford. “Even though she lived in seclusion, her life was so full.”

The show was a hit, and Crawford was asked back to the Public Theatre to do it again several years later.

Now she is again collaborating with the Public Theatre’s artistic director, Christopher Schario, who has come in from Maine to direct her in the Interplayers production. She said they have always shared the same vision for the play.

“The Belle of Amherst” is most closely associated with the great actress Julie Harris, who won a Tony Award for the role on Broadway in 1976. Harris went on to tour the show all over the U.S. It later became a television sensation when it aired on PBS.

Crawford never saw Harris in the role – which she regrets on one hand, because Harris’ performance is so legendary, but which also allows her to maintain her own “fresh look” at the character.

While best known for TV, Crawford has excellent theater credentials. She just finished an off-Broadway run with Daniel J. Travanti (“Hill Street Blues”) in Eugene O’Neill’s “A Touch of the Poet.” The Wall Street Journal called it one of New York’s best revivals of the year and said that Crawford turned her role into “a prize part.”

Crawford is still based in Los Angeles with husband Mike Genovese, another “ER” veteran, and they continue to do television work.

But Interplayers has become a second artistic home for her. She appeared in “Sparky & the Fitz” there and directed “Grace and Glorie,” both in 2007.

Playwright William Luce created “The Belle of Amherst” almost entirely from a remarkably fertile source of material: Dickinson’s own letters and diaries.

“Her letters are just astonishing,” said Crawford.

And, of course, her poems are even more so.

Jim Kershner can be reached at (509) 459-5493 or by e-mail at jimk@spokesman.com.


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