A friend, upon hearing that
The Belle of Amherst
was in production at Rose Valley's Hedgerow Theatre, commented, "That thing is going to play until there's nothing left on Earth but Cher doing it for an audience of cockroaches."
That's a fairly accurate portrait of our species - Cher representing our pathological need for attention and poet Emily Dickinson the quiet delights of privacy. And even if Penelope Reed, Hedgerow's artistic director and poet channeler, doesn't have half Cher's half-life, her longevity in the title role gives her a serious claim on that postapocalyptic lead.
Reed's been doing the part for 30 years, touring it, performing it for other companies, and bringing Dickinson back home. She makes an enchanting Emily, whimsical and reflective, filled with great joy and equally great sorrow. The script is credited to William Luce, but more than half its dialogue - spoken by the poet in direct address to the audience, or as remembered scenes - belongs to Dickinson herself, via her poetry and personal correspondence. Its structure is loosely chronological, veering elliptically through her life from childhood to her surprisingly social teen years to her seclusion and the losses that plagued her until her death at 55.
The show premiered in 1976, won Julie Harris a best-actress Tony Award, and has since become an evergreen for regional theaters - a guaranteed, low-budget success. After all, you have to be kind of heartless to not like Dickinson, or at least not to be intrigued by her, and new, young audiences discover her in English class each year.
Hedgerow encourages this acquaintance by offering slices of Dickinson's homemade "black cake" before and during the show; parents can feel free to use the sweets as bait and sneak in the real nutrition as their kids, fed a steady diet of reality-TV programming, hear poems such as "I'm Nobody! Who are you?"
This performance marks the first time Hedgerow has used its intimate Gallery space as a venue. With its rough-hewn, whitewashed walls and colonial lack of adornment, it makes a fine New England sitting room. A quibble, however: Since the room is so small, lighting designer John Tiedeck's use of its two iron chandeliers, which hang at roughly the same height as Reed's head, creates an annoying distraction.
However, Reed, as directed by Janet Kelsey, makes good use of the space, using several simple stations - a writing desk, rocking chair, tea tray, and chair - to keep the area from feeling confined or confining, an important issue for a woman who chose the life of the mind over participation in the wider world.
The Belle of Amherst
Through June 25 at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Rd., Media. Tickets: $10-$25. Information: 610-565-4211 or www.hedgerowtheatre.org.