Tea with 'Emily' still enthralls audiences

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The sun was intense, and Boston was melting gloriously after a big snow.

Julie Harris had fled Springfield, in western Massachusetts, just in time the day before. That city had been buried in the white stuff. The truck with the sets and costumes for her one-woman show, "The Belle of Amherst," had barely made it out of town in time to set up for opening night in Boston.

Presumably, Emily Dickinson, the sublime 19th-century poet Ms. Harris plays in her one-woman show, would not have cared about the snow. In her latter years, Dickinson rarely left her home in Amherst, Mass. Harris, on the other hand, is in the midst of a coast-to-coast tour that marks 25 years since "Belle of Amherst" debuted on Broadway. The performance by Harris, one of America's most distinguished actresses, won both a Tony and, later, an Emmy.

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Beneath a 19th-century portrait of women in hoop skirts in the French Room at Boston's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Harris chatted thoughtfully about her alter ego. Her feelings for one of America's most beloved poets are "closer and deeper" than ever, she says. "It's like a really good marriage."

In the play, Dickinson receives a guest (the audience) into her home for tea. She recalls events from her life and recites from her poems and other writings.

You say that doesn't sound like gripping theater? Don't tell that to enthralled audiences. So what is the attraction?

Harris says that at a performance "a woman came up to me afterwards and said, 'This play is all about love, isn't it?' "

"And I said, 'Yes, that's what it's all about." Simple, but true.

In fact, when Harris thinks of Dickinson, love is the first quality that comes to mind. Next comes "courage" and "patience with life and its disappointments. And her humor. She had wonderful humor."

Harris concedes it's a challenge to command the stage alone for 2-1/4 hours. Actor Hal Holbrook, who has performed his own one-man play, "Mark Twain Tonight!," for decades, came to see "Belle" in Seattle recently. He told Harris her performance was "like [taking] one long breath!"

"It's a fascinating story, and the words are very beautiful," she says, "but you have to keep it lively. You have to keep people interested every second."

When Harris plays Dickinson, the stage truly is home. "It's 'my' house. I'm very comfortable there." The dress she wears is an authentic copy of a dress Dickinson wore toward the end of her life. "It's a very simple, stark dress.... She had a pin ... that was hers. I don't have quite the same pin, but I have my grandmother's pin ... that I wear on the dress."

Dickinson was painfully shy and reclusive, seeing only a few close friends as guests. A friend was once invited over by a relative to play the piano for Emily. She remained upstairs listening, later thanking the guest in a written note.

So how does Harris as Dickinson invite hundreds of "guests" in the audience to visit her character each night? Dickinson would be "frightened to the point where she would say, 'I'm sorry, but I must ask you to leave.' But I can't ask the audience to leave!" Harris says with a chuckle. "So I must put up with my fear and go on with the tea party!"

Over the years, the show has changed incrementally. Two new poems are included in this run - and a couple of authentic details have just been added.

Harris recently visited Amherst, and "we were able to see Austin Dickinson's house next door [to Emily's]." Upstairs was the nursery of Dickinson's nephew, Gilbert. "I was able to see for the first time ... Gilbert's little tricycle." When she told the play's director, Charles Nelson Reilly, about the tricycle, "He said, 'That's a wonderful word. We have to put that in the play.... So that goes in tonight."

Harris also learned that a relative of Dickinson's had moved to Ipswich, Mass. "Mr. Reilly was enchanted with [the sound of] 'Ipswich.' So tonight I'll say, 'And Vinnie was away at school in Ipswich.' "

And future changes? "There's one letter that she writes to her cousins, the Norcrosses, in Boston, about [someone] who was killed in the Civil War. And she describes how he died. It's a beautiful letter, simply magnificent. And I'd love that to be in the play."

Write to us at entertainment@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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