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Theater Review

Harris' Dickinson: Voice of Experience

September 12, 2000|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES THEATER WRITER

Julie Harris' voice is huskier, not as high and tremulous as it was when she first performed "The Belle of Amherst" in 1976.

As she revives William Luce's superficial and scattered monodrama about Emily Dickinson, under the guidance of the original director, Charles Nelson Reilly, Harris' performance at the Laguna Playhouse looks largely unchanged. But it sounds different, thanks to the evolution of the star's vocal timbre.

The most passionate passages, such as Dickinson's grieving memory of her mysterious love for a Philadelphia minister, are not quite as vibrant. But the delight she takes in the "half-cracked" image that she presents for her neighbors and in the other ironies and amusements of her life are a bit richer, as if she is even more comfortably settled into her routines.

At least one visual detail, added since the earlier production, reinforces this: Harris briefly takes a tea cozy from its proper place atop the teapot and plops it on her head, wearing it like a crown out of Lewis Carroll, determined to retain a childish sense of play even as she grows older.

The play presents Dickinson at age 53, and according to a stage direction in the printed text, "she appears younger than she is." Harris is now 74, so forget that stage direction. It doesn't matter much anyway; Harris can still pass for 53--especially considering that in 1883, 53-year-olds probably looked older than they do now.

Her auburn wig still looks the same. In an interview in the program, Harris calls her new white dress "less girlish" than the outfit she wore in 1976--but this is a detail that probably won't be noticed by anyone who isn't an expert on 19th century fashion.

More important, Harris still moves all over the stage with ease and, occasionally, in flashback, with juvenile enthusiasm. She has no problem balancing a book atop her head when she recalls her early training in womanly ways.

In its favor, Luce's text has a knack for naturally blending excerpts from Dickinson's poetry into her reflections on her personal life. The verse isn't declaimed, especially with Harris doing the talking.

The play certainly serves Harris as a star vehicle, and it may serve Dickinson on a popularizing level.

Nonetheless, although "The Belle of Amherst" is one of the most famous examples of its genre--the famous-person monologue--it hardly escapes the limitations of that genre. If anything, most such monologues seem even more artificial as the years pass.

"The Belle of Amherst" has a particular problem in that Dickinson was a recluse--hardly someone who would start confessing personal secrets to an audience of strangers, even if her home environs are as carefully reproduced as they are in James Noone's set. The script lightly acknowledges this ("I never see strangers and hardly know what I say"), but within seconds this Emily Dickinson is putting on a show, abetted by Ken Billington's shifting lighting design. It feels fake.

The creators were determined to dispel the image of Dickinson as depressed and forbidding--note the title itself--but by doing so they also dispelled some of the drama that surrounds her.

Furthermore, Luce didn't arrange the material in a way that enhances the drama. The only apparent structure is a general progression through the seasons. Otherwise the material often seems to be inserted willy-nilly, with relatively trivial reflections quickly following serious ones, as if the audience must be spared the extension of any one mood for more than a few moments.

As usual in this genre, we have to take whatever the subject tells us without question. Not that anyone wants Emily Dickinson to be portrayed as a liar, but it would be interesting to hear the perspectives of some of the people she describes in great detail. "The Emily Dickinson Show" is not quite enough.

*

* "The Belle of Amherst," Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Oct. 8. $44-$53. (949) 497-ARTS. Running time: 2 hours.

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