For whom the Belle Tolls

Nearly 25 years after premiering The Belle of Amherst, actress Julie Harris and director Charles Nelson Reilly (yes, she of Knots Landing and he of The Match Game and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir fame) have resurrected their triumphant one-woman show about Emily Dickinson. Who knows what compelled them to give it a full-fledged revival —which starts at and opens the season of the Laguna Playhouse—but it's apparent that the production is close to their hearts.

Harris, Reilly and William Luce, whom the pair recruited to write the script, are all Dickinson buffs. Their fervent scholarship resonates throughout the play, with numerous facts, lines taken from letters and poems, and even a recipe for the poet's famous brickish black cake all included. The encyclopedic biographical detail is overwhelming at times, almost to the point of pedantry. Like listening to a relative who talks incessantly about herself, it's hard to keep your mind from drifting occasionally to wonder—guiltily—when she'll stop.

What emerges as a result of their efforts isn't the forlorn soul of literary lore but, thanks mostly to Harris' spirited acting, a portrait of a vivacious, humorous woman who delighted in being enigmatic and reclusive, sequestering herself to her family's Massachusetts homestead for the last 20 years of her life. This myth-shattering portrayal astonished people when the play debuted in 1976, and it certainly still does. Still, there's a tragic, melancholic air about her spinsterly life, made more so by the nature of her poems, which contemplated death, nature, spirituality and love. Admonished by a conventionalist to delay publishing her "spasmodic," "uncontrolled" poetry, she resisted friends' persuasions to ignore his advice. Fame came posthumously, with only seven of her 1,775 poems printed before she died in 1886.

The Belle of Amherst imagines an intimate meeting with the reclusive maid at 53, three years before she died from Bright's disease. While Harris was close to that age when she first played the role that earned her her fifth Tony Award (the most ever won by an actor), she is now 74. "I'm 20 years too old to do this part again," she confided in a recent interview. It's unfortunate she didn't heed her own misgivings.

Despite engaging, heartfelt acting on Harris' part, Dickinson comes across as a granny with a trembling voice—not the ailing but still feisty middle-aged woman she was. While it's touching to see a theatrical classic in the flesh, you can't help feeling you're experiencing a remnant of what must have been a really fantastic event 25 years ago.

The Belle of Amherst at Laguna Beach Playhouse's Moulton Theatre, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-ARTS; www.lagunaplayhouse.com. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. Through Oct. 8. $44-$53.

 
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