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Review: ‘Belle of Amherst’ carries away on the wings of words

Of all the pleasures to be enjoyed at “The Belle of Amherst” – fine acting, bittersweet laughter, deep feeling – the chief pleasure comes from having all of that glorious language wash over us for two hours.

Emily Dickinson, as brought vividly to life by the excellent Ellen Crawford, was a woman to whom words seemed to gleam in the sky with “phosphorescence.” To Dickinson, even a hard-working word like “circumference” was something grand, as Crawford exuberantly demonstrated while writing it with her finger in the air, turning a circle.

Dickinson’s poems are, of course, brilliant in their imagery, cadence and verbal play. Crawford – or really, Emily, since we often believe we are watching the poet herself – delivers many of her best-known stanzas and even plenty of entire poems.

At “The Belle of Amherst,” you will be reminded that it was Dickinson who wrote:

•“Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul.”

•“The Soul selects her own Society / Then – shuts the door.”

•“Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me.”

Yet what makes this one-woman show so rich and enduring is that Dickinson was equally eloquent in her letters, from which William Luce took much of his script.

Here’s Dickinson confiding in us about how she knows something is true poetry: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

All I can say is, just about every minute of this show is poetry – even the parts that don’t come from poems.

Crawford’s Dickinson is surprisingly high-strung, flighty and nervous, like the birds she adores so much. She portrays Dickinson not as an ethereal being, but as a self-conscious and easily flustered woman.

The evening is directed with an eye toward maximum theatricality by Christopher Schario. Crawford is in constant motion about the stage, picking up her father’s newspaper, waving it in the air, forgetting she has it and asking the audience where it went. She twirls, she swoops, she pirouettes.

Crawford has all of the acting technique this role requires, using her whole body constantly. Her malleable face reveals every emotion, even the ones that Emily might want to hide, such as envy, pride, egotism and yes, lust.

Some of these big gestures and broad expressions would be better suited to a bigger theater with a proscenium stage. It can be a little too much for an intimate space like Interplayers, where most of the audience is within eight rows of the stage. Emily’s character is so strong, it doesn’t need quite so much selling.

Or should I say, her life force is so strong. Dickinson is famous for several poems about death, but she was a woman who reveled in nature, in small country pleasures and she was no stranger to love. And few people in our history have been able to express such complicated human feelings with such directness and precision.

I came away from “The Belle of Amherst” the way I often come away from a fine Shakespeare production: As if I have been filled, happily, with the English language.

“The Belle of Amherst” continues through March 14 (with a brief hiatus Wednesday through Friday while Crawford films the final episode of “ER”). Call (509) 455-7529 for tickets.
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