It can't be easy to create a drama about a famous recluse like Emily Dickinson, but playwright Chris Cragin and director Steve Day give it the old Amherst try with Emily. The play aims to illuminate the spinster poet's self-circumscribed life through dramatizing family scenes during her late teens and twenties.
It begins unpromisingly, with the cast clumping about constructing the set for the first scene, then introducing their characters in a sequence that's meant to be enveloping but comes across as too precious. The stylized quality of this prologue extends through much of the play, and while it does help convey the distance Emily establishes between herself and the rest of the world, it also curtails our engagement with the story. In spite of the graceful cast and their lush costumes, Mr. Day doesn't develop much of interest to look at on stage; the slow pace sometimes sinks into ennui rather than expanding into stateliness.
The play comes to life in certain amusing scenes, and it boasts some good performances, notably the finely calibrated, unsentimental yet touching portrayal of the poet by Elizabeth A. Davis. At one point, Emily's teacher, Mr. Williamson (an earnest, composite character somewhat overplayed by Christopher Bonewitz) tells Emily he has submitted one of her poems anonymously to a journal, and it has been accepted. "I don't know why I'm crying," Emily confesses in a poignant, perfect little moment that shines a pinpoint light on her character.
Another such moment, a more obvious one, crowns the play's liveliest scene: the young Emily, her siblings, and her friend Newton (Mr. Bonewitz again, here very funny) are reading from Romeo and Juliet, and the girls go on to discuss which suitor they'd choose. Emily makes an absurd selection. In her late teens, she hasn't yet retreated into her somber white cloud, but she's already a girl apart.
Ms. Davis also recites Dickinson's poetry very sweetly, and if nothing else, seeing this play will remind you (or teach you for the first time) of the great beauty of these poems. Certain lines of some of the poems are read in unison by more than one character, which I found distracted from the sense of the lines, though my companion appreciated its musicality. Other quibbles: Jenny Ledel is good as Emily's sister-in-law Sue, but Sue's lower-class origin is one of a number of potentially dramatizing factors that are spoken of but could have been taken better advantage of to make the play more engrossing. Also, though Ms. Ledel is a talented young actress, giving her a pair of granny glasses and a shawl doesn't convincingly transform her into Emily's aging mother.
In short, this modestly diverting play partially succeeds in bringing Emily Dickinson to life, but more through the lead performance and the poetry itself than through the play's conception or realization. I can't deny that it succeeded in sending me home to crack open my copy of Emily Dickinson's Collected Poems.
Emily runs through Sept. 27 at Theatre Row.
Photo: Firebone Theatre