In her end-of-season program note, Bay Theatre Company co-founder and artistic director Janet Luby refers to "the astonishing success of Bay Theatre's 2011-2012 season," and promised that this season's final production would do justice to the preceding three performances.
Bay's current production is William Luce's 1976 biographical play "The Belle of Amherst," a one-woman depiction of the life of 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson from about age 15 until her death in 1886. Luce's masterful portrait of Dickinson was largely constructed from her own words, found in her poetry and woven together with correspondence and other sources to create an authentic theater work that soon became an international hit.
Rarely do we experience theater in which each element contributes excellence to the whole. This production marks the Bay Theatre debut of two luminaries of the Washington theater community who continue their magical collaboration: renowned director Jerry Whiddon and Helen Hayes-nominated actress Kathryn Kelley.
Adding to the synergetic magic are members of Bay's artistic team, including set designer Ken Sheats, who creates a cozy late-19th-century New England home. Kelley moves about convincingly as Dickinson, beautifully dressed in an immaculate white, pleated gown created by costume designer Christina McAlpine.
The scene is enhanced by John Burkland's skilled lighting design, which includes for the first time at Bay Theatre an ellipsoidal spotlight fitted with a moving mirror, which smoothly and silently follows the actor's every move on stage.
At the center of this compelling drama is Kelley, completely at home in her authentic 19th-century rooms. She manages to convince us through the force of her acting skills that she is a wrenlike plain woman, although we may initially be struck by her resemblance to a young Vivien Leigh. Kelley's Emily is a woman of vision and intelligence who mischievously delights in becoming the eccentric recluse her ridiculing neighbors described as weird.
Having prepared for this review by viewing a recording the 1976 Julie Harris performance, I was looking forward to seeing a live portrayal of this major American poet whose work remains remarkably current. But it was impossible to anticipate the magical theater experience delivered by Bay Theatre, which brought to life this vibrant woman who would establish rapport with us in the audience and gradually allows us to know her as few ever could have in her 55-year lifetime.
Kelley's Emily Dickinson invokes the presence of her every visitor in conversations with younger sister Lavinia, in which she amusingly reads to her newspaper accounts of neighbors' fatal accidents. Her stern state legislator/congressman father Samuel softens toward her after finding her diligently working at her craft far into the night, as she pauses to share one of her poems with him. Kelley displays Emily's trusting openness toward her brother Austin, and love for his son, her young nephew Gilbert, who would die at age eight.
Visitors provide high drama, as when a pastor Emily had met years earlier in Philadelphia arrives at her door after a decades-long correspondence to share his plans to relocate. Emily, by weaving in lines of her poetry, shares her innocent longing for a potential romance:
"So, we must keep apart,
You here, I there,
With just the door ajar
That oceans are."
The scene in which publisher and literary critic Thomas Higginson arrives to discuss her work is filled with Emily's fervent hopes that her poems will at last be published, then disappointment at criticism of her "too unconventional" work that destroys any hope of publication. Emily's initial surprised defense of her work followed by her poignant silent acknowledgment of Higginson's denial provides enormously engaging theater for everyone who values communication skills.
Kelley's Emily Dickinson is a continuously fascinating woman who is often a mischievous wit, sometimes self-deprecating, occasionally proud of her gardening or baking skill, and always a fierce lover of language who relishes finding the perfect word.
Dickinson is ageless, as illustrated by her quoted poem "Parting:"
"My life closed twice before its close; It yet remains to see If immortality unveil A third event to me, So huge, so hopeless to conceive, As these that twice befell. Parting is all we know of heaven, And all we need of hell."
Scholars agree on the merit of her poetry, with literary critic Harold Bloom placing Dickinson with such major poets as Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot and Hart Crane. And she gains immortality in Luce's biographical drama.
"The Belle of Amherst" continues at Bay Theatre at 275 W. Garrett weekends Thursdays through Sundays through May 6. For tickets, call the box office at 410-268-1333 or online at baytheatre.org.