BENNINGTON — The great 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was known as a hermit, never venturing far from the confines of her Amherst, Mass. homestead.
But this Friday through Sunday, the so-called "virgin recluse" will roam the stage at Oldcastle Theatre Company in William Luce's classic one-woman play "The Belle of Amherst."
Eric Peterson, Oldcastle's artistic director, said the show, first produced in 1976, is a perfect prelude to the company's upcoming 45th season, and pays homage to one of the nation's literary luminaries.
"Emily Dickinson is a giant of American letters," Peterson said. "This play is a very intelligent rendering. The script is based on her many letters and poems. And having an accomplished actor like Paula Mann play the role will be a treat for audiences."
Mann, who has acted on stage, film, and TV since 1980, also serves as director of the theatre program at Green Mountain College. She said she's thrilled to play Dickinson, and that the play remains timely
"I thought of trying to write a one person show on Dickinson, but quickly realized that playwright William Luce had already done so much of the research into her life, letters and poems," Mann said. "The play had been tested and found to be highly successful with [actor] Julie Harris in the mid-1970s. Why mess with that kind of success?"
This seems an appropriate time, Mann continued, to reflect on the words of America's first great woman poet, especially since Dickinson was largely unrecognized in her lifetime, and treated as an eccentric loner and lovelorn spinster.
"Yet she was a modern woman who, instead of being victimized by the constricted social mores of the time, created the life she wanted in order to fulfill her life's work, which was her poetry," Mann said. "Also, her issues in the poems are very modern themes, wrestling with why we're here on this earth, what comes next, and the ecstasy and desolation of love, life and death."
Indeed, Dickinson lived a simple life in Amherst. She was known to have a deep love for nature and was an acute observer of birds, bees, flowers and the seasons, "lessons which we are trying to teach ourselves and future generations," Mann said.
Dr. Lea Newman, professor of English emerita at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and author of the book "Emily Dickinson: 'Virgin Recluse' and Rebel: 36 Poems, Their Backstories, Her Life," agreed with Mann. Newman described the poet's life and poetry as inextricably linked, each shedding light on the other.
"Oldcastle's production of 'The Belle of Amherst' gives us the opportunity to hear Emily's riveting verse here in Bennington," Newman said. "[Her] persona tells us on stage about family and friends, and shares with us her hopes, doubts, joys, and sorrows, and some of her best known poems."
Newman, who will be on hand to sign copies of the book, on sale courtesy of the Bennington Bookshop, admitted to a special affinity for the play. She said "The Belle of Amherst" attempts to reveal the woman who "rebelled against her society's norms, chose a reclusive life, and against all odds, managed to write dazzling poetry that has made her immortal."
According to Mann it is Dickinson's poetry and the depth of Luce's script that requires the experience of a veteran actor.
"I couldn't have done this show when I first started acting," Mann said. "I simply wasn't equipped. It requires tremendous self-discipline, confidence and grit to tackle all the qualities which Dickinson had, despite her shyness and socially unacceptable way of life. Realizing this helps me overcome my own fear and trepidation at this undertaking."
Such intensity, Mann noted, is also inherent in one-actor plays. The better prepared the actor, the more visceral the audience experience. Mann's demeanor indicated resolve and readiness for the chal"Working on a one-person show is a lonely business," Mann explained. "There's none of the camaraderie of sharing the stage, building the story and energy together with other actors and sharing responsibility for the show. [T]hat can be very daunting. It's an incredible workout to learn 90 minutes of dialogue and hold the attention of an audience with only a simple set, minimal action and telling the life story of a 19th century woman poet."
Mann concluded that Oldcastle had given her a great opportunity, and trusted her to do it with minimal resources.
"I'm anxious to share Emily Dickinson's story with local audiences and I've especially loved studying and memorizing so many of her poems," she said.
"The Belle of Amherst" will run from April 1 – 3 at Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main St. in Bennington. For tickets and info call 802-447-0564 or visit: www.oldcastletheatre.org.
— Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. Contact him at email@example.com