Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Belle of Amherst"

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note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Larry Stark

"The Belle of Amherst"

by William Luce
Based on the life of Emily Dickinson
Compiled by Timothy Helgeson
Directed by Charles Nelson Reilly

Scenic Design by James Noone
Lighting Design by Ken Billington
Production Stage Manager Matthew Lambert

Emily Dickinson.........Julie Harris

The really astonishing thing about Julie Harris in "The Belle of Amherst" at the Shubert Theatre is that she doesn't have to be that good. All she need do is stand on that stage reminding generations of admirers of her luminous performances in "Requiem for A Heavyweight" "East of Eden" or "I Am A Camera" and allow those celluloid ghosts to carry her on to triumph. Instead, she seizes the attention of that vast sea of admirers by becoming, not a seventy-five-year-old celebrity but --- Emily Dickinson. This great actress is only herself when becoming someone else.

She wanders about James Noone's jumble of old Amherst furniture with Ken Billington's lights dimming and brightening as she wanders in and out of Dickinson's present and past, using bits of poetry as everyday speech. She treats the audience as rare visitors to her Amherst parlor, to her life, and to her reflection of the intimate glories of her everyday world. There is no hint during those two hours or so of their visit that this woman has every been anything else. She is a word-drunk eccentric most of whose family and all her hopes, of marriage or of fame as a published poet, have died --- but not her precious love of life.

Miss Harris' director, Charles Nelson Reilly, met her first literally on stage, when he was thrown as a replacement into the out-of-town tryout of a better-forgotten musical called "Skyscraper". Credited with the conceiving this show for Miss Harris, he has of late made a reputation directing intimate vehicles for celebrities --- "Belle of Amherst" "Paul Robeson"(James Earl Jones) "Driving Miss Daisy" "My One Good Nerve"(Ruby Dee) "Love Letters"(Burt Reynolds & Ann-Margaret) "The Gin Game". His method is simply to let the performer's personality blossom on stage, through a fond haze of memories.

My own memories of Julie Harris are two. When I went out to review the Harwich Junior Theatre production of "Cyrano de Bergerac" out in West Harwich, I was told she just happened by to see the show (she lives on Cape Cod) and I was introduced. All I could do was babble that the second Broadway play I'd ever seen was "The Lark". I had thought I was going to see Boris Karloff playing Joan of Arc's confessor during her trial, but I was also dazzled by Joel Meilzeiner's magnificently simple scenic design, and saw Christopher Plummer play Joan's best general, and at the end of Jean Anouilh's lovely play Julie Harris turned and said to me --- directly to Me in my first-row-balcony seat: "Then, let it end here, then --- if nobody minds." and I fell in love.
With theater, as well as with her.

When did you fall in love with Julie Harris?


"The Belle of Amherst" (till 11 February)
265 Tremont Street, BOSTON
(617) 350-6000

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide