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Theater review: 'The Belle of Amherst' at Cobblestone


A large cobblestone house on a busy highway is an unexpected location for award-winning theatrical work, but through June 25, poet Emily Dickinson is brought to life onstage in William Luce's "The Belle of Amherst," which plays at Cobblestone Arts Center in Farmington. The venue usually features children's performances and camp showcases, but the reasoning for this run is more nostalgic than anything else -- it's a reunion of sorts for the cast and creative team.

When "The Belle of Amherst" was mounted in the Rochester area 27 years ago, Cobblestone Director Lorene Benson produced it at her former venue across from Eastview Mall, in the cobblestone building that now houses a Starbucks. There, it sold out every performance after the first weekend, garnered awards, and moved on to national and international venues for the following two years. Benson, director Michael Arve, and actor Vicki Casarett reunited for the 2017 reprisal, and after Saturday night's show it's simple to see why it was such a success the first time around.

The plot follows Dickinson's life from 1830 to 1866 and draws heavily from her written correspondences, journals, and poetry to create an intimate conversation with the audience. It lightly touches on lingering questions about her mental state -- she often experienced nervous breakdowns -- while giving a glimpse of her intensely personal life. Dickinson was a recluse, but even a recluse has dreams and desires.

Playwright William Luce does an admirable job of humanizing, though not stereotyping the poet. He is known for his one-person scripts (other subjects include Zelda Fitzgerald and Lillian Hellman), which he often wrote specifically for five-time Tony Award-winner Julie Harris. Her 1977 Tony win for Best Actress was for her portrayal of Dickinson in "The Belle of Amherst."

Actor Vicki Casarett's absolute control during the show is impressive; the emotional depth, vivacity, and insight she breathes into the character of Emily Dickinson is stunning. Dickinson, in her bridal-white dress, seated at her writing desk. Dickinson planting seeds in the homestead garden. Dickinson talking to her family members in the parlor. Casarett embodies her character completely, moving from conversation to poetry, her cadence perfectly matched to the way each syllable was originally penned. Artistic Director Michael Arve, who is also a poet, doubtless provided guidance throughout the process.

It's often been said that one of the most difficult scenarios for an actor is that of the one-sided phone call. When to pause; how to react authentically -- it's a precarious challenge when there is no one on the other line to provide a response. Casarett, however, could teach a master class. While "Belle" is a one-woman show, she "plays opposite" nearly 15 characters throughout the two-hour run. Each interaction and conversation is one-sided yet wholly genuine, a nod to her thorough mastery of both the script and the timing needed for such a demanding pace.

The audience is invited into Dickinson's Amherst, Massachusetts, home: her parlor, bedroom, and garden. The set design by Arve is conscientious and historical, with period-appropriate pieces and small touches like plants, picture frames, and personal mementos scattered about the surfaces to make the set more home-like. Casarett uses an abundance of props, writes with quill and ink, nibbles cake, and sips water and tea frequently throughout the run.

The stage is free flowing, each room melding into the next so Casarett can move swiftly between scenes. The lower part of the stage represents the outdoors, and lighting changes to signify where the audience should direct their attention. Sound effects are used throughout the show (the only negative part of the experience was a consistent white noise heard from the auditorium speakers during the performance).

Cobblestone Arts is a bit of a drive outside the city, but not too far. It's a quick jump from 490 east to the Thruway, and the center is located right on route 332 off the exit. To sweeten the overall experience, the team at Cobblestone offers complimentary wine, tea, and Dickinson's "Black Cake" in the lobby pre-show and during intermission -- an especially luxurious touch as everything is served in real glassware and patrons can bring their beverages into the auditorium. "The Belle of Amherst" is a poignant, beautifully executed production. It's worth both the drive from the city and sacrificing a few precious hours of Rochester summertime.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This review has been updated to correct an error. Arve designed the show's sets.