If you’re expecting only the morose and moody stereotype of Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst,” something else awaits you. It certainly did for director Ivan Davidson.
“I think the thing I found most surprising was her wry sense of humor,” Davidson said of the one-woman play. “We don’t normally think of Emily Dickinson as being a comic poet, but she wrote some very witty things.” Davidson is the guiding force for a presentation of playwright William Luce’s work at the Mobile Public Library’s Bernheim Hall on March 30 at 2 p.m.
It’s been nearly 40 years since Luce’s play hit the public consciousness with actress Julie Harris in the role of the Massachusetts poet known for a life of frequent seclusion. Harris raked in both a Tony and Grammy award for her work.
“I had seen Julie Harris doing the original many, many years ago and when she died recently, I checked out the video to watch it again,” Davidson said. “I thought ‘this still holds up pretty well, I’d like to do this.’ So I talked to Nancy Anlange at the library and she wanted it, so we were off and running.”
When it came to casting, the solution was immediate. Davidson had worked with local actress, playwright and author Danielle Juzan in several capacities over the years.“Well, she kind of has the look although she’s much more attractive than Emily Dickinson ever was,” Davidson said. “She has the range and the sensibility, and as a writer herself I thought correctly that she would be attuned to the language Dickinson used. Plus, she’s just an excellent actress.”
Luce cobbled the play together through intensive research with the poet’s letters and works. The result is something that stays true to her public face while still revealing portions less familiar, though it’s been often explored.
“I think some woman has done this in every library in America, so it was sort of humbling to join the great throng,” Juzan quipped. “And on a lot of their blogs they talk about how they read the collected works of Emily Dickinson and things like that.”
Juzan thought her preparation was aided by time and academic research. She could stand on the shoulders of others for a vantage point.
“There’s been so much more scholarship about her works now in the 40 years since the play was written, so people have different ideas now about how if the things (Luce) found were true,” Juzan said. “There are speculations about lesbian relationships and they don’t really know the identity of this guy she called ‘The Master’ in her letters. Of course, for purposes of the play, (Luce) picked one person and settled on it.”
Those revelations could also prove challenging. Juzan found herself in midst of a balancing act.
“So every time I found a piece of scholarship or research that conflicts with what the play is trying to do, it was disturbing,” Juzan said. “So I just decided the heck with it, I’m going to dive into it as if it were a fictional work and I’m going to let the language shape the character the way I would with any other role. I’m not trying to be the real Emily Dickinson. I’m the Emily Dickinson of William Luce’s ‘Belle of Amherst.’”
Juzan also found out about the fallibility of some online research, most particularly the noted unreliability of Wikipedia. The article on the open access site said Harris “portrayed 15 different characters” in the course of the play.
“Yeah, I got excited when I saw that on the Wikipedia page, thinking ‘oh this will be an acting challenge,’ but now I don’t know what the hell they were talking about,” Juzan laughed. “There’s times where she portrays little scenes and she’ll use a little funny voice when talking of another character, but I would hardly call that portraying another character. It’s just imitation of another voice.”
The team has been in sporadic rehearsal for about two months thus far, with regular rehearsal only under way in the last weeks. Running time at this juncture is just shy of two hours, but both actor and director are determined to shave it down far more. For the record, Harris’ version came in at around 90 minutes.
Having directed other local works, including Juzan’s satirical “Artbruted” in various incarnations, along with concert readings and Mobile Opera productions, Davidson has seen a lot of time on Mobile stages. He directed a one-woman show for the Joy To Life Foundation this past fall, and has every confidence his sole charge can do whatever is asked for the current play.
“This is our fourth or fifth play together, and she’s a marvelous collaborator,” Davidson said. “She brings her own ideas to the script, is very malleable and takes directions beautifully. She’s not a pushover and you have to convince her your interpretation actually fits the script but once she sees it, she’s all in for it. There’s absolutely nothing of the diva in Danielle.”