Belle of Amherst Delivers Complex Character

by Matthew Falduto

Meg Merckens as Emily Dickinson

ITAC – When I hear the name Emily Dickinson, I naturally think: poet. As the free association continues, the words recluse… spinster… death… lonely… come to mind. My mind creates an image of a woman alone in an upstairs bedroom, painstakingly creating beautiful but dark poems by candle light. As the Iowa Theatre Artists Company’s production of William Luce’s The Belle of Amherst makes clear, that is an incomplete picture at best. Emily Dickinson, as portrayed in this powerful one woman show by Meg Merckens, is a complex woman, but one we can identify with easily. She has the same fears, the same desires, and the same uncertainties that we all face in our lives. 

Every choice the creative team behind The Belle of Amherst has made illuminates this pivotal American writer. If you don’t leave the theatre knowing a whole lot more about the person behind the poetry… well, then you must already be an Emily Dickinson aficionado. The set is simple and perfect, clearly creating the drawing room in Emily’s house. Antique desks, a sofa, and nick-knacks suggest a real home of the time period. Instead of walls, there is a black curtain behind the set pieces. This works well because the clever set designer (Thomas P. Johnson, who also directed the piece) also uses four unobtrusive white columns to create the illusion of a rectangular room. The lighting is also well done. At various points in the play, we jump back in time to one of Emily’s memories. A lighting change signifies this jump allowing us to follow the action easily. 

A one person show is a challenge for any performer. I am not certain that non-actors can truly appreciate the mental and physical stamina an actor must possess to power through a two hour show and maintain the character she’s created. (Note that there is an intermission.) All eyes are on you alone. Every action is yours. There is no help from other actors if you lose track of where you are, never a break off stage to re-focus before the next entrance. There is only you, alone, on stage. It’s take a truly strong actor to successfully keep an audience engaged for two hours. Fortunately, Iowa Theatre Artists has such an artist in Meg Merckens. From the first minute, she is Emily Dickinson, taking us through an emotional roller coaster ride, up to every peak and down to every valley. She shows Emily’s whimsy as a teenager, her passion for words, and her heartbreak toward the end of the show. And she does this with an indefatigable energy that is so engaging to experience. 

 I highly recommend this play. It’s a wonderful opportunity to take an in depth look at a true American icon. Iowa Theatre Artists should be commended for bringing this play to stage. It only runs through Sunday, October 21, so see it while you can! Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights, 1:30 p.m. Sundays. Ticket price is $22.50 Adult; $10 Student (Includes College and Grad School); Group Rates are available. Call 319-622-3222, email itac@southslope.net, or go online to www.iowatheatreartists.org.

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