‘The Belle of Amherst’ Review — Kate Fry Phosphoresces as Emily Dickinson

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A one-woman show about a homebody might suggest a quiet night at the theater, but when the homebody is 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson and the sole actor is Chicago theatrical treasure Kate Fry, get ready for fireworks. You are sure to be dazzled by “The Belle of Amherst,” cannily directed by Sean Graney at Court Theatre.

Daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson circa 1846

It would be hard to imagine a better match for the part of Dickinson than Fry — including perhaps the legendary Julie Harris, for whom playwright William Luce created the role. Harris’s portrayal of Dickinson on Broadway in 1976 garnered Harris her fifth Tony, no doubt well deserved. Even so, I can’t help but think that that Fry gives the late Harris a run for the title of the ideal Dickinson. Fry brings a freshness to the part that mirrors the originality of the poet’s work.

Kate Fry as Emily Dickinson in ‘The Belle of Amherst’

Words are a poet’s currency, and Luce captures Dickinson’s syntax in his script by artfully interweaving passages from Dickinson’s poems, diary entries and letters with rhythmic monologue — the scraps of poetry acting almost like songs in a musical. One sample line from Dickinson nicely sums up how the play unfolds: “The Truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind.”

As important as the words are — and Fry articulates each word, like “phosphorescence,” with the care of a jeweler setting a precious stone — her performance reaches the level of the sublime when she is nonverbal, with emotions etched neatly across her face: delight, despair, mischief, love, loss and, of course, hope, “the thing with feathers.” At times her monologue transforms into dialogue, as she brings implied characters to life as vividly as if they were physically on stage with her.

Meticulous direction and design enhance the richness of Fry’s performance. Dickinson stayed close to home — “The soul selects her own society” — and Arnel Sancianco’s scenic design makes that home feel like a wondrous world onto itself, from an upholstered chair with a teacup at arm’s reach to a bedroom that is both refuge and writer’s studio. The set transforms as Dickinson bakes a cake, putters with plants and folds linens, with the story literally unpacking itself from a series of boxes, most important, the black rectangle that holds the poet’s compositions. Costumes by Samantha C. Jones speak with the economy of good poems, and lighting design by Mike Durst modulates the mood throughout.

Photos: Michael Brosilow


The Belle of Amherst

Through December 3, 2017

Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago (free garage parking during evening performances)

Tickets $50-$68 (student, military and senior discounts available) at Court Theatre or (773) 753-4472


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