By Ellen Booraem
BROOKSVILLE — “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” one of Emily Dickinson’s most famous poems begins. Playwright William Luce took her at her word, and since 1976 his one-woman portrait of the Amherst, Mass., recluse has shone with truth if not precise accuracy.
Julie Harris famously pioneered the role, with the advantage of actually looking like the historical Emily. Bagaduce Theatre’s Monique Fowler does not have that advantage but it doesn’t matter a hill of beans — she’s perfect for the role, her mobile face radiating joy one minute, collapsing in sorrow the next. Dickinson’s wicked humor makes her eyes dance.
“The Belle of Amherst” is the final production of the season for the Brooksville summer theater company, which has transformed a family barn into a highly competent theater for two seasons now. “Belle” continues this weekend and next, at 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays.
Playwright Luce made the decision early on that other actors had no place in a play about a recluse poet.
“I decided that Emily alone should tell her story,” he writes in an author’s note, “sharing with the audience the inner drama of the poet’s consciousness in an intimate, one-to-one relationship.”
Even if one-person shows fill you with dread, you should take a chance on this one. Luce and Fowler’s Dickinson contains multitudes. The author of “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” also is capable of describing a formidable aunt as “the only male relative on the female side.”
Set in 1883, three years before Dickinson’s death at 56, the poet’s monologue moves back and forward in time, sliding effortlessly from her recipe for black cake (2 pounds each of flour and sugar, 19 eggs, spices you grind yourself) to her adolescent attempts at flirtation (not as successful as the cake) and resistance to religious fervor. She admits to being obsessed with publication, at which she also did not succeed while alive.
In some of the more delightful moments, Emily holds forth on “words to which I lift my hat when I see them sitting on a page,” griping that a fellow writer gives us “the facts but not the phosphorescence.” She admits that her white-clad eccentric recluse schtick is a bit of a joke on the neighbors. Attaching an inscrutable note to a gift of baked goods (“No bird resumes its egg”), she exults, “That’ll keep them guessing.”
Luce made the artistic decision to give his Emily slightly more of a love life than the historians do, positively identifying the mysterious “master” to whom she addressed several love letters (possibly unmailed) and giving her a couple of brushes with matrimony that haven’t entirely been confirmed. Dickinson, we suspect, would’ve loved this.
The play has tragic moments, mostly the deaths of friends and family, but also diminishing hopes, whether of love or of publication and acknowledgement. Mercurial, resilient Emily gives in for a minute or two, immobile on the sofa, then resolutely finds her feet and a nature poem.
Fowler, a veteran of Broadway and beyond, handles it all comfortably, so natural on stage that this becomes as much a visit as a theatrical production. She uses all her tools, lightening her voice to give us Emily’s childlike quality, changing tone beautifully when Emily, without warning, slides from speech to poetry and back again. We’re made to feel that delivering two hours of monologue is (sorry) a piece of cake.
“The Belle of Amherst” is at Bagaduce Theatre (the Fowler Farm, 176 Mills Point Road, Brooksville) through Oct. 1, 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Open seating tickets are $20. To reserve seats, call 801-1536 or visit www. bagaducetheatre.com.