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Theatre Review: The Belle of Amherst

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(Sacramento, CA)
Friday, April 8, 2011

Actress Jackie Vanderbeck, who in real life is rather pretty, undergoes a transformation to play Emily Dickinson, who regarded herself as "plain." Vanderbeck ties her dark hair in a tight bun, and wraps her slender figure in a long dress, so you only see her head and hands. She keeps the outside world at distance.

[PLAY EXCERPT] "I guess people in small towns must have their local characters. And for Amherst, that's what I am. But do you know something? I enjoy the game. I've never said this to anyone, but I'll tell you. I do it on purpose! The white dress, the seclusion, it's all deliberate."

Rather than go out, Dickinson dwells in a writer's interior world of ideas, where she feels far more comfortable.

[PLAY EXCERPT] "I look at words as if they were entities. . . sacred beings. A poet can chose but a few words, and they have to be the BEST words."

Words reign supreme in this production.  Phrases from Dickinson's poems are written in chalk on the walls and floors that make up the set. And Jackie Vanderbeck handles Dickinson's words lovingly as she speaks them, pausing to savor the sound.
Vanderbeck's  portrayal  captures the complexity of Dickinson - she's determined to be a serious writer at a time when most famous American authors were male. But she's also withdrawn, pressing her fingers against the window pane, looking on rather than venturing out into the broader world.

This is a talky show, not fit for fidgety kids or short attention spans. But if you can sit still and concentrate, "The Belle of Amherst" will reward you with deep, surprising insights into the life of this very singular woman, whose very personal poems have stood the test of time.

"The Belle of Amherst" continues at the Sacramento Theatre Company through May 8th.

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