Last chance to catch delightful staging of ‘The Belle of Amherst’

“The Belle of Amherst” featuring Maureen Silliman as Emily Dickenson. (PHOTO:  T Charles Erickson)

The Two River Theater Company launched  two shows that landed on NYC stages so far this year. It’s a great way for the Red Bank-based regional theater to celebrate its 25 anniversary season.

TRT playwright-in-residence Madeleine George’s “Hurricane Diane” was staged at the New York Theatre Workshop earlier this season and “Be More Chill” opened last month at  the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway.

You might think TRT specializes in new work.

Wrong. The company also produces classic works, and this is the last week to check out “The Belle of Amherst,” based on Emily Dickinson’s life. It’s a loving revival of the one-woman show written by William Luce (he specialized in them, and wrote this one for Julie Harris, who premiered it on Broadway in 1976).

It closes in Red Bank May 5.

For Emily Dickinson, poetry became her life. Her reason for living. Her way of dealing with death and disappointment, hope and happiness. It helped her to survive the loneliness of living in New England in the mid-19th century.

The Two River Theater Company’s production of the one-woman show is staged on a traditional set, better have an exceptional actor and script or ticket-holders will be heading for the exits by intermission. 

Not to worry. Under the superb direction of TRT’s founder and executive producer Robert Rechnitz, Silliman’s remarkable performance keeps us interested for the entire two hours.

Rechnitz, a retired professor of American Literature at Monmouth University after 35 years, brings an intricate understanding of the complexities of Dickinson’s work that infuses Silliman’s performance.

When she died in 1886 at age 56, Dickinson had written almost 1,800 poems. Less than a dozen had been published while she lived and very few people even knew she was a poet. 

While Luce’s script and Silliman’s performance reveals a young women curious about life, eager for romance, obedient yet headstrong at times, one can’t help think how different — how successful — her life as a poet might have been if only she had been born 100 years later.

Just imagine — her poems mostly are written in short stanzas — what she could have done on Twitter.

Reclusive — maybe on purpose, at least in the beginning — known as the Lady in White (Dickinson wore white dresses exclusively) withdrew from life so much she eventually talked to visitors through closed doors. She never married and her most intimate relationships outside the family took place by mail.

Silliman, a TRT regular, brings a palpable sense of fragility to a character whose life was bombarded by the early deaths of people she cared for in a pre-antibiotic/no vaccination world. Later, Dickinson for years tended to her mother’s needs following a stroke a year after her father died.

Silliman’s tearful telling of’ the loss of a strict father who never seemed to smile brought tears to my eyes as well. And I wasn’t the only one in the audience sniffling.

But mostly, “The Belle of Amherst” is a play filled with much laughter. It isn’t a biography, or a history lesson, nor an English lit lecture. It’s a super, well-done revival of an American play obviously close to the heart of the theater’s with founder with an extremely talented actress that should not be missed.

 

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