The most commonly held image of poet Emily Dickinson is that of a frail, ghostly recluse, hidden away in the shadowy corners of her childhood home in Amherst, Mass., writing lonelyheart poetry and shunning the company of anyone but her spinster sister, Lavinia. What’s revealed in “The Belle of Amherst,” William Luce’s splendid biographical portrait of the poet, is the surprising amount of mischievousness and good humor with which Emily played along with, and nurtured, that perception of herself. And what we get from the luminous Julie Harris, repeating her tour de force, Tony-winning role in a 25th anniversary production of the show, is not a woman wedded to death and darkness but one who loved life and lived wholeheartedly in the light.
Born in 1830 and dying 56 years later, Dickinson wrote an astonishing 1,775 short poems, only a very few of which were published in her lifetime. At 74, theater legend Julie Harris may be well beyond the appropriate chronological age for the role, but she is quite in tune with its spirit. Even after a quarter-century, Harris brings a level of vivaciousness and charm to Emily that defies any wrinkling of the skin or passing of time.
Under the respectful guidance of her director and longtime friend Charles Nelson Reilly, Harris beguiles her audience with tales of Emily’s life — the men (mostly married) that she loved and lost, her eight-year correspondence with an Atlantic Monthly editor who never did publish her work, love of baking and family, questioning of religion, observations of nature and devotion to writing poetry.
Luce’s script weaves in and out of these and other lifetime experiences with the same kind of quiet assurance that Harris displays while traversing James Noone’s handsome set. This has been the only home Emily has ever known, and that sense of comfort and security envelopes Harris as she shares it with the audience as easily as she offers up the recipe for her prized black cake.
“Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant,” Emily once wrote, ending the poem with “The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or everyman be blind.” And with this revival Harris does indeed dazzle, gradually.