The Belle of Amherst

Helen Merino is open and radiant as Emily Dickinson in this one-woman show about the reclusive poet

Helen Merino as Emily Dickinson
Helen Merino as Emily Dickinson (Photo courtesy of Bret Brookshire)

The Belle of Amherst

Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside, 512/474-5664
Through Dec. 1
Running time: 1 hr., 55 min.

Any time a writer of fiction, including a playwright, tackles the life story of a historical figure, it's an open invitation to skeptics. They want "the truth." Is this really how things happened? Is that truly what she said? Yet playwrights are artists, and artists tell the truth – even when the facts of the matter are dead wrong.

William Luce has made a career of crafting character studies of famous women throughout history, among them Zelda Fitzgerald, Lillian Hellman, and, in The Belle of Amherst, Emily Dickinson. Luce's penchant for one-person shows seems especially fitting for Dickinson given the slant-rhyme poet's reputation as a recluse.

Once Austin Shakespeare Artistic Director Ann Ciccolella decided to direct the show, she considered only one actor for Dickinson: Helen Merino. Breathtaking in range and pleasing to the eye, the elfin enchantress makes it easy to see why she was Ciccolella's sole choice. Yet the poet we come to know – indeed, that we're endeared to in this production – is anything but the awkward shut-in revealed to us in the footnotes of literary criticism.

Merino's Dickinson is open, embracing her audience with a radiance that is certainly welcome, but nonetheless seems out of step with everything we think we know about introverts. She waves her freak flag high, high ... but like a sorceress, transforms us into her willing accomplices. We are right there with her, behind closed doors, mocking the town gossips.

Although Merino performs the show solo, in a sense she shares the stage with lighting designer Jason Amato. An award-winning technician and celebrated figure on the Austin theatre scene, Amato is a photoelectric sculptor, carving out rooms and eliciting emotions with color wheels and candlepower.

Scenic designer Doug Mackie and properties coordinator Shannon Richey have meticulously re-created the Dickinsons' 19th century chambers, complete with antique china, a well-appointed writing desk, and what appears to be a burled elm box, where the poet cradles her verses.

The Rollins is a fine venue to showcase the work of Austin's brightest stars, so it was a real pity when such quality was compromised during Act II by noise from a party upstairs in the Kodosky Donor Lounge. How difficult is it to meditate on human impermanence with a frat party soundtrack rocking in the background? Very. Still, Merino was near-heroic in the face of adversity, and her possession of character so complete that she seemed to hear nothing but the "Second's Races/ And the Hoofs of the Clock."

Hunched over in grief as she recalled the death of her father, this Emily soldiered on through the racket as we recall, not without some irony, that "an ear can break a human heart/ As quickly as a spear."

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The Belle of Amherst, Austin theatre, Austin Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, William Luce, Ann Ciccolella, Helen Merino, Jason Amato

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