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Review – ‘The Belle of Amherst’ at Sonoma Arts Live By Alexa Chipman

Emily Dickinson was an extraordinary woman who had the courage to live as she liked, regardless of expectations.

Playwright William Luce has incorporated reams of Dickinson’s poetry and letters, interspersed with lyrical language that flows in and out of verse. The soothing cadence and pleasant environment recreates a lazy afternoon sitting in her parlor for tea. It is more of an educational chautauqua rather than a drama, although there are occasional moments of deep feeling.

This play is fascinating in its attention to detail. When Dickinson describes her view from the window, the images take flight with imagination. She speaks kindly of foibles in others that she has observed, giving people the benefit of the doubt as long as possible.

The character’s hopeful disposition and gentle wit combine with Jennifer King’s sparkling vivacity. She leaps atop furniture, eyes gleaming with passion, and keeps the audience’s attention through sheer force of energy. Director Sharon Winegar decided to have King appear a few minutes before the official curtain time, puttering about with props and working on her costume. “I wanted to engage with the play from a modern perspective” she explains about the staging.

While it is important for a period piece to have its mothballs shaken out, the vintage language and furnishings were confusing without a costume to match. The hairstyle and rough snood are not accurate to any particular era and became mildly distracting. Perhaps the choice was made to easily navigate the live pre-show preparations, but the result for the actual play was difficult to reconcile with her character and created a muddy visual of generic Victoriana.

“The Belle of Amherst” is a delightful, engaging way to learn about the quintessential American poet Emily Dickinson. King is exceptional in the role, performing with graceful intensity. “I find ecstasy in living” Dickinson shouts to the world, and indeed she does in this production.

The Belle of Amherst

Presented by Sonoma Arts Live through June 2, 2019 Thur/Fri/Sat at 7:30pm, Sun at 2:00pm Tickets: $28-40

Rotary Stage in Andrews Hall at the Sonoma Community Center 276 East Napa Street, Sonoma, CA 95476 (866) 710-8942

Photos by Eric Chazankin

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