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May 06, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, May 06, 2005

Tea with Emily Dickinson Tea with Emily Dickinson (May 06, 2005)

New Pear Avenue production brings audience face to face with legendary poet

by Diana Reynolds Roome

You might not expect to be invited for tea by Emily Dickinson, who is almost as famous for her reclusive nature as for her startlingly original poetry.

But that's how the audience is drawn into "The Belle of Amherst," a new production at the Pear Avenue Theatre that makes the poet so accessible it feels like you've actually met her.

For one thing, you have her recipe for "black cake," a daunting concoction that requires 19 unbeaten eggs and 8 pounds of dried fruit sprinkled in all at once. As Dickinson holds the tea tray and invites us in, we are quickly persuaded to see her as an easygoing and generous spirit rather than her venerable father's "half-cracked daughter."

Her famous eccentricities are not discounted, but this Emily -- played by Diane Tasca and directed by Jim Gunn -- recounts them with some glee. "I hear they compare my notes to see which is the strangest," she says of the "prim, starched ladies of Amherst," a gleam of mischief in her eye.

The theatre, which seats 40, is a perfect venue for a play like this. Drawn into Emily's sitting room in Amherst, Mass. -- where she lived in her family's house all her life (1830-86), almost never leaving its grounds -- we are so close that when she shows us a small framed photograph of herself at 17, the only photo she ever sat for, we can see the shy, "plain" face, just as she describes it.

Diane Tasca inhabits Emily's life with such apparent ease that for two hours we are riveted by this one white-clad figure on an unchanging black-draped set, willing to listen to her stories, reflections, revelations, joys and pains -- and above all her poems, which are woven into the script so seamlessly it's hard to tell sometimes which is poetry and which reminiscence or reflection. She recounts incidents with her brother Austin and her sister Lavinia, talks about her love of nature and animals, and her joys and excitement when the circus comes to town.

Beneath the conversational language, the play has an almost musical undercurrent, attributable to Dickinson's pervasive rhythms. "Words are like jewels," she says, and Tasca delivers them with a clarity and care worthy of a poet who says, half seriously and half in jest: "Phosphorescence: there's a word to lift your hat to. But can you spell it?"

"The Belle of Amherst" is maybe 80 percent written by Dickinson herself, culled from letters, poems and notes by playwright William Luce, who has skillfully constructed an arc of incidents, remembered and recounted toward the end of her life. Several are played as one-sided dialogues, as Emily speaks to someone we can only hear in her (and our) imagination.

One of the most touching is when her father, an attorney and treasurer of Amherst College, finds her awake and writing at 2 a.m. He chides her, citing the strict household rule that requires everyone to be up early for breakfast. When Dickinson reminds him that she is never late for breakfast, he prompts her to read the poem she is working on, then asks to hear another. He makes no comment, but then this man who "hardly ever smiles" cancels the early morning rule for her and allows her to sleep late after her long nighttime labors. Her relief and joy are almost palpable, and we know enough about this family to realize this is high praise.

The first half of the play is light in tone and often funny, held together by the skill and charm of Tasca's performance, and the pleasure of making the acquaintance of a poet who was so unappreciated in her own lifetime that she only published four poems in a local newspaper -- yet is now included in every college literature curriculum and well-known enough for someone to base a computer game on her work.

However, it's apparent that the sunny atmosphere cannot last. In the play's second half, the stage is unchanged, even down to the black cake still uneaten on the plate and the clock still at six o'clock. Yet the action has moved into a darker realm - reflected in starker lighting (designed by Gunn).

It begins with her long-awaited encounter with the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, who has been reading and returning her poems for eight years. Emily was 40 when this venerable figure came to Amherst and paid her a visit. She was sure this was the beginning of wider recognition for her, but the visit turns out not to be as she expected. A poem records her devastation: "You heard no noise, the ruin was within." Yet she managed to recover and keep writing, even enduring the slow pain of separation from a man she fell in love with after hearing him preach a sermon in church, met only once again, but corresponded with for 20 years.

There is an inherent paradox about a play in which a woman who shrinks from society talks about herself for two hours, and her smiling persona may seem puzzling at first. But paradox is an intriguing part of Emily Dickinson's life and work. She was an obsessively private person who yearned for fame. She lived in her father's house as a loving and dutiful daughter and sister all her life, yet her spirit was that of a rebel.

She rejected religion and eventually refused to go to church, yet her poems are deeply spiritual. "God's residence is next to mine," she says, but she blesses herself with "the bees, the butterflies, and the breeze" instead of "the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost."

At the end, facing illness and the ghastly realization that "perhaps no-one will read my poems, like an undelivered letter lost in transit," Tasca turns to the audience and asks them to "Judge tenderly of me."

We do.

What: The Belle of Amherst

Where: Pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear Avenue, Unit K, Mountain View

When: Runs until May 8, Thursday - Saturday 8 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m.

Tickets: $15-$20, $10 students/ seniors. 650-254-1148;

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