Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Belle of Amherst
Sonoma Arts Live
Review by Jeanie K. Smith | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's review of The View UpStairs

Jennifer King
Photo by Eric Chazankin
Whether you love Emily Dickinson's poetry or are somewhat indifferent to it, you're still likely to enjoy the lively portrayal of her in The Belle of Amherst, the one-woman show running for only two weekends at Sonoma Arts Live. Actress Jennifer King and director Sharon Winegar have worked diligently to create an engaging production that breathes new life into William Luce's 1976 script.

But note: it's important to stay the distance, commit to the whole evening (just under two hours total), as the script's first act does not hint at the treasures to come in the second act. If you're familiar with the play, or perhaps the classic film version starring Julie Harris, you'll know this and your anticipation will be rewarded. If it's a new script to you, be assured that the first act is laying the groundwork for the challenges to come.

Luce's premise overall generates some disbelief—that Dickinson, famous recluse of Amherst, would open her parlor to strangers and spill her innermost thoughts, even share her poetry (that was unpublished in her lifetime), defies credibility. But it's a device we can live with in order to understand and appreciate the unique and eccentric mind behind the luminous poetry.

Jennifer King gives such an endearing embodiment of the girlish genius that we feel graced with Dickinson's rare companionship, given a glimpse of her history and her bridled passion for life that breathed so keenly only in her verse. King's animated performance creates a memorable portrait, of a young girl, a teenager, a mature woman—sometimes all in a few sentences. We see the frustrated artist, the plea for an appreciative listener that went unanswered, and the failure of would-be lovers. We also get to hear her clear delivery of the poetry without unnecessary embellishment. For personality, King supplies the requisite delicacy as well as a durable feistiness.

Guided by Winegar, the staging constantly moves, keeping a nimble pace. The play is presented in arena style that also allows King to interact, close-up and personal, with the audience, forging a friendly bond. It's a more buoyant and uplifting interpretation than usually seen, and quite captivating.

Scenic design by Gary Gonser keeps the set simple but versatile. Arrive early to take your seat and enjoy watching King set her own furniture and props and get into character. The singular costume by Skipper Skeoch aptly fits our image of Dickinson and allows for action. Lighting by Steve Hagstrom and sound by Winegar enhance the action with subtle cues.

It's a very short appearance of this excellent production, so don't delay—and do stick around for act two.

The Belle of Amherst, through June 2, 2019, by Sonoma Arts Live, at the Sonoma Community Center, 276 East Napa St, Sonoma CA. Tickets $25.00-$40.00 can be purchased online at tickets or by phone at 707-206-1668

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