Ferrell Marshall is luminous as Emily Dickinson in Sierra Madre Playhouse’s gorgeously staged intimate revival of William Luce’s the Belle Of Amherst, impeccably directed by Todd Nielsen.

Luce’s one-woman play has fifty-three year old Emily welcoming an unseen guest to her Amherst, Massachusetts home for tea and conversation during which Emily reminisces on her life’s most pivotal moments and on the people who helped make her the still youthful, still largely unpublished, still rather improbably hopeful spinster she is today.

Among the characters with whom Emily converses are her father Edward, her sister Lavinia “Vinnie,” her brother Austin, and the two men who most impacted her life, literary mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson (who managed to find fault with just about everything Emily wrote) and Charles Wadsworth (the Philadelphia preacher Emily called her suitor despite only having met him twice in her life).

The Belle Of Amherst alternates between moments of humor (Emily gives us the recipe for her “special black cake,” whose ingredients include two pounds of butter, nineteen eggs, and one half pint of brandy), sadness (the death of her youngest nephew Gilbert at eight), joy (when she talks about Wadsworth, her entire face beams), and disappointment (Higginson describes her meter as “spasmodic” and her rhymes as just plain “bad”).

No wonder then that The Belle Of Amherst provided Broadway superstar Julie Harris with one of her signature roles (and a Best Actress Tony). No wonder then that Luce’s play gives 2016 Stage Raw Award winner Marshall the proverbial role of a lifetime, and one in which she absolutely dazzles.

Unlike a number of other one-actor vehicles, The Belle Of Amherst does not ask its star to “play” a dozen or more roles. When she converses with friends and family, the only voice we hear is Emily’s.

But oh what a voice that is, clear as a bell and filled with the same rich emotions (from carefully reserved to unexpectedly raw) that radiate from Marshall’s expressive eyes.

Though The Belle Of Amherst could just as well be performed in a bare blackbox and still give its leading lady ample opportunities to impress, the Sierra Madre Playhouse proscenium stage features a production design as gorgeous as its star.

Scenic designer Matthew G. Hill’s lovely, lacy living room (appointed by Lauri Bell Fitzsimmons’ bevy of period props, its walls painted with attention to the subtlest detail by Orlando de la Paz) has been exquisitely lit by Rebecca Hairston in an ever-changing array of patterns with Hill’s stunning projections, Vicki Conrad’s radiant lady-in-white costume, and Krys Fehervari’s appropriately prim-and-proper wig completing the visual mix, and sound designer Alex Mackyol’s multitude of sense-memory effects and Sean Paxton’s evocative original score working equal audio magic.

The Belle Of Amherst is produced by Marshall, Estelle Campbell, and Christian Lebano. Kristin Bolinski and Lillian Minnich are stage managers. Carla Linton is assistant lighting designer.

Emily Dickinson may only have published a handful of poems during her lifetime (and only known romantic love from afar), but her artistry lives on. Ferrell Marshall brings Emily the poet, the daughter, the sister, and the woman back to incandescent life in a solo production sure to be remembered as one of the year’s finest.

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Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre.

–Steven Stanley
April 9, 2017
Photos: John Dlugolecki

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