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Jackie Vanderbeck Amazes As Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst” At STC

Jackie Vanderbeck Amazes As Emily Dickinson in "The Belle of Amherst" At STC
Jackie Vanderbeck as Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst” at Sacramento Theatre Company

She welcomes you in. Shyly at first, but before long she starts
treating you like an old friend – sharing recipes, gossip and the
important events in her life. This is Emily Elizabeth Dickinson, born
on December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Mass. At least, this is the Emily
Dickinson of William Luce’s 1976 play “The Belle of Amherst.”

Luce spent two years doing extensive research into Dickinson’s life,
reading several biographies, diaries, letters and Dickinson’s
extensive collection of poetry. In writing “The Belle of Amherst” Luce
changed some of the facts in a manner that would probably be described
as “for dramatic reasons.”

When “The Belle of Amherst” premiered on Broadway in ’76, it starred Julie
Harris, who won her fifth Tony Award. Harris went on to perform the
role in a recording of the play for television the same year and a year
later in the West End premiere in London. Harris toured the
country in traveling  productions of “The Belle of Amherst”
for several years.

“The Belle of Amherst” is a one-person play set up as a one-on-one
conversation between the individuals in the audience and the poet. In
this production, it truly feels like it. The words are Luce’s prose
mixed with Dickinson’s poetry.

In spite of the long history of “The Belle of Amherst,” the production
that opened at the Sacramento Theatre Company felt fresh, alive and
welcoming. Much of this is due to the performance of Sacramento native
Jackie Vanderbeck, who portrays Dickinson. Vanderbeck, now a
successful New York actress, has performed many times at STC over the
years. She does convey the feeling that you, the audience member, are
a dear friend and confidant.

The character states early on that her sister says she chatters when she is
excited or nervous. It is true that there are a lot of words here,
both prose and poetry. Vanderbeck’s delivery is smooth and flawless.

When asked, following the show, how she manages to remember all those
words, the actress stated: “I have to stay completely focused in the
moment. I can’t think even a moment ahead,” she explained as she used
her hands to make blinders on her face.

Vanderbeck successfully conveys the essence of Dickinson. Although she
is a recluse, she is far from lonely. Although she never marries, she
has a definite interest in men. We learn much about the men in her
life, especially her father. Although he ruled the household with a
stern hand, he recognized Emily’s talent and would bend the rules for
her.

Yet another reason for the success of this production is the direction
by Janis Stevens. While directing “The Belle of Amherst,” Stevens is
also appearing as the diva, Maria Callas, in “Master Class” at Capital
Stage, which has received rave critical reviews and popularity.
Stephens was a 2006 Drama Desk Award nominee for her performance in
“Vivian,” based on the life of Vivian Leigh. Stevens reprised the
role in a sell-out run at STC. She has also been nominated for Best
Female Lead in “Becoming Julia Morgan” by the Bay Area Critics Circle.
Stevens is an expert in performing roles featuring strong,
complicated women and one-person plays.

For “The Belle of Amherst,” Morgan McCarthy has created a lovely set
that makes good use of the difficult space of STC’s Pollock Stage. The
set is comprised of two rooms, the family parlor and Emily’s bedroom.
The parlor looks out on the family gardens. The furnishings are all
white with the walls and floors in light blue. Fragments of
Dickinson’s poetry are written faintly across the surfaces.

Ron Madonia’s lighting effectively highlights the areas that Emily
inhabits. The lighting also helps set the moods.

Jessical Minnihan consulted with the Emily Dickinson Museum for
costuming. Dickinson, notorious for wearing only white, doesn’t allow
for much color in her wardrobe. Within the production, she likes to
accessorize with a muted brown scarf.

Veteran stage manager Suzanne Tyler keeps all the lighting and sound
effects on cue while dealing with a character that can quickly move
from one space and mood to another.

STC’s production of “The Belle of Amherst” presents an American icon
and beloved poet who leads a fascinating life. Emily Dickinson is
vividly portrayed by an excellent actress working with a superb
director. All this is performed in a space that comes as close to
making the audience member a part of the action as possible.
 

"The Belle of Amherst"

Sacramento Theatre Company

Through May 8, 2011

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