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Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013

Renaissance Theaterworks' 'The Belle of Amherst'

'My Business is to Sing'

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Renaissance Theaterworks opens its 21st season with William Luce’s one-woman show The Belle of Amherst, a close psychological study of Emily Dickinson. Actress Jenny Wanasek takes us through many events from the poet’s life, beginning with her adolescence and progressing through her twilight years when she wore only white and refused to leave her home.

Suzan Fete’s production is visually striking. The interior set includes Dickinson’s parlor and bedroom, set off by two large floral paintings and a window. Set designer Lisa Schlenker has a wonderful eye for 19th-century detail, and lighting designer R.H. Graham’s work is quietly superb in its gradual transition from morning sky colors used for Dickinson’s early-life recollections to empurpled twilight hues corresponding to her later life.

Wanasek’s performance is polished, her lyrical voice perfectly suited to Victorian poetry and the subtle responses of a woman born in an era of rigid social expectation. Although her emotional shifts sometimes seem abrupt or unnatural—as when Dickinson describes the death of her beloved nephew—this is perhaps appropriate given the character’s own guardedness and extreme introversion. Indeed, the play might be understood as a psychological treatise on introversion. We watch Dickinson suffer rejection after rejection; she is passed over at dances in her teen years, rejected for publication by her longtime editor correspondent and visited only once by a man she’s loved for 20 years.

And yet her isolation is chosen, not enforced. She speaks at length about how she found everything she wanted within her own home and garden, and was thus never drawn to leave. Although cloistered, she has fulfilling relationships with family members. Nature, for her, is God, and the English language is her best beloved; she pauses often to savor words like “phosphorescence” and “Massachusetts,” calling them “words to lift your hat to.” Most importantly, even in the midst of her deep disappointment that her poems are unpublished, she states, “My business is to sing! What difference does it make if no one listens?” We thus find a hopeful, if bittersweet, message in Belle—that wholehearted devotion to one’s art is potentially transcendent and sustaining.

The Belle of Amherst runs through Nov. 10, at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. For tickets call 414-291-7800 or visit r-t-w.com.

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