‘The Belle of Amherst’ at Bay Theatre Company by Amanda Gunther


“A word is dead when it is said,” some say. Emily Dickinson says that it just begins to live that day. And there are many words that are given great life, even a few worth tipping your hat to in The Bay Theatre Company’s production of The Belle of Amherst.

Kathryn Kelley as Emily Dickinson in 'The Belle of Amherst.' Photo by Stan Barouh.

Director Jerry Whiddon takes us on a journey into the intricate web of the mind of Emily Dickinson – a quaint moment in her life as if the audience were her invited guests for afternoon tea. It is a spell-binding performance of one of America’s most treasured poets – giving the audience insights into her secluded life at Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Set Designer Ken Sheats constructs the world of Emily Dickinson through her personal bedroom. We are transported to another time zone with the antique sconces mounted to the wall with flickering candles to set the mood lighting. Her bedroom has a natural appeal to it, with little wooden chests for all of her poems and the writing desk stationed by the window. It is the picturesque image of her solitude, warm and inviting like a nest rather than a prison. The look of the character is polished off by Costumer Christine McAlpine who outfits Kathryn Kelley (Dickinson) in a pleated white gown with long sleeves, bridal white as she was often referred to wearing. It almost looks like a historical sketch, to see her standing at the window gazing out at the gossiping neighbors as they pass by trying to steal a glimpse at her.

Kathryn Kelley takes on the challenging role of Emily Dickinson, presenting herself in such a way that makes audiences question her madness. She always appears to be teetering just on the edge of ‘half-cracked’ and sane, telling us of all her little tricks to keep people guessing. For Dickinson it’s a game and Kelley treats it like a little game of give and take— putting just a little of the lunacy out there in a quirky smile or devilish smirk, and then reeling it back in with a serious gaze or solemn speech. Kelley wanders about the space of her room almost absently as if wandering through the recesses of her mind – meandering through memories as she travels the road to her soul and pauses to dwell in the possibilities – each of these moments happening in an anecdote, some jovial and exciting, some more somber and sad.

Kathryn Kelley as Emily Dickinson in 'The Belle of Amherst.' Photo by Stan Barouh.

When she speaks her voice holds a nervous quality, often laced with excitement, like a child eager to tell their tale but not quite certain to whether or not she should be sharing it with strangers. Kelley is eager to share things, letting her eyes do a lot of the communicating as she tells the audience about her secret recipe for black cake, about her adventures as a young girl, and her relations with other important figures in her life. Her creation of the other characters is so vivid that you almost believe there are others on stage with Kelley. Though she does not imitate the others her conversations to these invisible people is extremely convincing. She has a moment where she takes great pains to read the horrific accidents in the newspaper to her sister Vinny, pausing every now and again to shout smartly at the sister for falling asleep, or not being able to hear her. Kelley shares many moments like these with her brother Austin, or addressing her father. One of the more touching moments occurs when she shares her poetry with her father late one night forming a bond between her and the character she has spoken of as such a cold and stern man.

Kelley reaches deep into the soul of her performance to find the true phosphorescence of the character, letting the light of Dickinson’s poetry shine through the text. She does an exceptional job of flitting from tangent to tangent and managing to keep the audience engaged with her spasmodic jumps back and forth in time as well as from subject to subject. There are moments of utter elation and harrowing sorrow that Kelley portrays with a simple shift in her tonality and her physicality making the Dickinson character very dynamic and thoroughly enjoyable for the duration of the show.

Find a word that is worth tipping your hat to – and if you can’t think of any – there are plenty to spare down at The Belle of Amherst at The Bay Theatre Company.

Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with one intermission.

The Belle of Amherst plays through May 6, 2012 at The Bay Theatre Company – 275 West Street, in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 268-1333, or purchase them online.

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