THE BELLE OF AMHERST

“This is my introduction…black cake.”
– Emily Dickinson, greeting her guests

Photos by John Dlugolecki
Ferrell Marshall in “The Belle of Amherst” at Sierra Madre Playhouse.

Actress Ferrell Marshall does a great job in evoking the elusive Victorian spinster poet Emily Elizabeth Dickinson to life. Her ability to weave Dickinson’s happiness and melancholy are done with gentle ease. Dressed in her trademark white dress with high collar, Em proceeds to give the recipe of her famous black cake, another version of a fruitcake with a lighter texture.

From the moment Marshall walks on stage, she is engaging and humorous. Emily is captivating with her rich stories and her quick-witted delivery. She recalls the time how one day a nosey woman came around saying she’s looking to buy a house, Em directed her to the cemetery. Morbid? Oh, yes! Is it funny? Absolutely! With the exception of her family, her father Edward, her sister Lavinia, brother Austin and sister-in-law Susan, Dickinson kept to herself ad was fine with it. She had some eccentricities. She wore white all year round. Even the kids in the area referred to her as “They Myth.” As she talks about what’s going on with herself, she gives the audience her recipe for black cake. It consists of: five pounds of raisins, 18 eggs, 21 pounds of butter, a pinch of salt and in the oven for six to seven hours. Good luck with that!

She admits that to “tell all the truth but tell it with a slant.” As she sips her tea, she talks about her family with grand affection. She speaks highly of love and admits to be a romantic and a bit of a flirt. She loved to socialize. She recalls her childhood with fondness. However, there was one time she acted with defiance when she talked back to her teacher who insists she cross out the naughty words in a Shakespearean poem. I guess the teacher didn’t know that was the fun part of Shakespeare’s lascivious poetry.

Marshall is absolutely wonderful in the title role. She’s unequivocally fun, highly amusing and exciting to watch. As Emily, she prepares for a visit with her mentor writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson. She sent him some of her poems. As she awaits to see him, she goes over many practiced introductions. He finally arrives and shows him her work. She calls him the preceptor and she’s the scholar.

Let me warn you now, after you see this wonderful show based on one of America’s prolific, yet under the radar poet, you might have the sudden urge to look for that dusty copy of Emily Dickinson poetry book hidden somewhere in some box you packed years ago. Or, simply walk to your nearest library and pick up a collection. If you’re not instantly overcome with tender emotion, then Em is not for you, and that’s a shame. This unassuming woman from Massachusetts was blessed with a remarkable talent.

The Belle of Amherst plays Thursdays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. until Sunday, April 23rd, at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, located at 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd, in Sierra Madre. For ticket information, call 626-355-4318 or reserve on-line at www.sierramadreplayhouse.org


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