Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

The Belle of Amherst

Albuquerque Little Theatre
Review by Carla Cafolla

Also see Carla's review of A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline

Ronda Lewis as Emily Dickinson
Photo by Jason Ponic Photography
Arguably America's most famous poet, Emily Dickinson, aka The Belle of Amherst, has been reinvented. The melancholic old maid of my adolescent literature classes—the crotchety spinster so preoccupied with death, she personified him—is no more.

Though often and erroneously termed a biography, this piece is primarily the result of author William Luce's imagination—based upon impressions he garnered from the poet's letters, poetry, and written or anecdotal views of those who knew her.

There are unique challenges facing an unaccompanied stage actor. Unlike a stream of consciousness discourse which often requires little from the actor but to recite, and from the listener but to listen, this one-woman script obligates the performer to react confidently to unheard conversations, attend, and convincingly respond to her imaginary companions, all while relating and engaging us with excerpts from her life's story.

Albuquerque Little Theatre's presentation of William Luce's The Belle of Amherst is remarkable, not for revising our perception of Emily Dickinson, but for confirming Ronda Lewis' status as an extraordinary transformational actress—her professional growth and maturity demonstrated by her delivery of a compelling coup de maĆ®tre on the New Mexico theatrical arena.

Under the direction of Staci Robbins, Lewis becomes a physical manifestation of the titular character's internal dialogue. For approximately two hours, including intermission, principal Lewis absorbs and reflects many aspects of the individuals who influence the poet's emotionally convoluted life.

We can never really know how Dickinson sounded or physically expressed herself, but at rise, Lewis' Miss Emily Elizabeth Dickinson, surprised to be meeting us, the audience, rather than her sister Lavinia, disarms us with genteel dignity and impish good humour. Laughter follows her recipe for her famous "black cake," this monumental self-acknowledged tribute to her baking skills, incorporating nineteen eggs, six pounds of flour, a bottle of her father's (not best) brandy, and a variety of other excessive ingredients. Stories regarding her neighbors' attitudes and opinions are shamelessly imitated and parodied with great delight. Accounts of her childhood, her relationship with her brother, her sister, and her beloved father animate her character, creating a personality we grow to understand and love.

With Lewis alone onstage, we become her de facto acting partner. As she relives various periods in Dickinson's life from age 15 to her early fifties, Lewis displays an assortment of emotional and vocal strengths which build on the similarities between her and the poet; both courageously reveal their vulnerability, one before us, onstage, the other via her written voice of long ago. Dickinson's essence unfolds along with her opinions of mankind's universal truths: love, death, immortality, nature, spirituality. In short, sometimes humorous, often ironic and pithy verse—her feelings implied, cryptic or hidden (prodigious outpourings of this unconventional soul being discovered after her death)—Lewis' unveiling creates a sometimes painful bond between the actor, her subject (a reclusive woman whose genius remained unrecognized in her lifetime), and us, her initially unsuspecting audience.

The Belle of Amherst shows Dickinson at her most exposed, some could say delusional, self. We also see her defiant, dramatic, and ultimately tragically human. Her use of a pronoun not typically associated with her sex raises once again the rumours surrounding her true relationship with Sue Huntington Gilbert, her lifelong friend who ultimately became the wife of Dickinson's brother, Austin.

Graceful movements and interactions with a number of well-timed sound effects punctuate this narrative. While navigating the lovely set, comfortably using a number of period props and accompanied by lights designed to enhance and evoke her moods, Dickinson, by keeping her hands busy, keeps her mind free—giving us, and her story, her full focus.

Love (platonic, carnal, familial, unrequited and imaginary), the many faces and physical finality of death, and her belief in an afterlife, some form of immortality, color Dickinson's seemingly bizarre life choices. Having suffered an enormous number of losses, the most impactful being the sudden demise of her father and the tragic death by typhoid of her beloved eight-year-old nephew Gilbert, Lewis' second act evocation of Dickinson's agony is flawless. The house watched in rapt silence as Lewis, tears unshed, made us shrink from her pain, grateful it was she, and not we, who suffered.

Peaks and valleys litter this play, one which proves somewhat unbalanced when brought to life onstage. And although we become acquainted with the author's vision of Dickinson's persona based on a combination of his and the poet's own words, Luce's view may not be the only one. A richness of evidence supports other considerations. Dickinson's obsession with her father and other men of his generation has Freudian echoes, while her recorded (in her letters) sentiments relating to Sue, and her affection towards Amy Loomis Todd, Austin's much younger lover, speak to us of territories as yet uncharted.

Despite costumer Carolyn Hogan's finest efforts, close attention to detail, and procurement of the perfect wig, Lewis' incandescence proves impossible to subdue. This weekend-only production of The Belle of Amherst is well worth a visit even for those not familiar with her work. It will, I assure you, spark or renew an interest in this most elusive and talented poet.

The Belle of Amherst runs through July 25, 2021, at Albuquerque Little Theatre, 224 San Pasquale SW, Albuquerque NM. Performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2:00 p.m. For tickets and information, visit or call Phone: 505-242-4750. Tickets also available at the door.