THE BELLE OF AMHERST theatre review

photo: Dave Pearce

Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre has augmented its regular season for the past three years by presenting a short summer program, with plays independently produced by outside groups in this area.
On June 17, 18, and 19, ABET and Black Cake Productions presented the one-woman show by playwright William Luce entitled The Belle of Amherst, based on the life of the innovative world-renowned poet, Emily Dickinson. While many of today’s readers know her works from English literature classes, her talent was not recognized or appreciated until after her death.
The play debuted in 1976 with Julie Harris as the star. Luce’s script is based on her letters and poems, and covers her life from about age fifteen until her death in 1886.
ABET’s Belle is set in the parlor of the Dickinson home in Amherst, Massachusetts. The set was a simple but effective recreation of the interiors of the era, with a patterned rug, chairs in dark wood with upholstered backs and seats, a writing desk, and a table covered with family photographs.
Emily Dickinson truly came to life in the person of actress Sinda Nichols, who, in period dress and with a great smile, immediately established wonderful rapport with the audience as she talked directly to us. She initially engaged our interest by confiding her secret recipe for Black Cake. As the play progressed, the very animated Ms. Nichols roamed all over the set, often coming to the edge of the stage and looking us right in the eye, especially when relating a mischievous and humorous incident. She recalled events in Dickinson’s life as if she were talking to a family member, and skillfully wove poems and excerpts of famous lines from her vast body of work into the stage presentation. And she painfully related stories about a couple of potential romances that never panned out; the reclusive Dickinson stayed at home all her adult life as she wrote almost 1,800 poems.
The second act began with a most interesting encounter with a rare visitor to her home, publisher and literary critic Thomas Higginson. After eight years of corresponding about possibly publishing her poems, Higginson came to discuss this face to face. Dickinson’s high hopes for publication were crushed when the publisher was critical of her unconventional work; she finds the rejection particularly hurtful given the success his firm had with the prior publication of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”
Sinda Nichols was directed by Ron Kurtz, and gave a truly professional performance, with amazing vocal variety, timing, and pacing that kept the enthralled audience riveted to her every nuanced gesture. Ms. Nichols has worked as an actress from coast to coast before deciding to settle in the Fernandina Beach area, where she previously performed three sold-out productions of Belle. She is no stranger to the Jacksonville area, and received rave reviews for her performance in Night of the Iguana at Players by the Sea, performing the very demanding role of spinster Hannah.
Black Cake productions donates a portion of proceeds from each performance to a local library; the ABET performances will benefit the Beaches Friends of the Library. In August, Ms. Nichols is going to Mazomanie, Wisconsin to repeat this role, with performances to benefit the local Friends of the Library. For additional information, visit Thank you Sinda, for your masterful performance, it was a delight.
And thank you ABET for bring us this wonderful summer treat. ABET’s final summer special is Nocturne, on June 25 – 26. See www.abetthearte for additional information.