By Terry Teachout  
Palm Beach Dramaworks, West Palm Beach, Fla. (viewable online through Tuesday, $30). To watch, go to
EMILY DICKINSON is not only a great poet but an artistic giant who casts a long shadow across both high and popular American culture. On the one hand, her hauntingly gnomic verses formed the basis for “Letter to the World” (1940), one of Martha Graham’s very best dances, and Aaron Copland’s “Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson,” a song cycle of supreme sublimity. On the other hand, she cavorts wildly and ahistorically throughout “Dickinson,” the Apple TV+ comedy series in which she is transformed into a kind of proto-goth chick who takes opium and has hot sex with her brother’s fiancée.

“The Belle of Amherst,” William Luce’s 1976 one-woman play about Dickinson, falls somewhere in between these distant extremes, if far closer to the former than the latter. Solidly stitched together by Luce from her poems and correspondence, it is no masterpiece by any means, but Luce tells the tale of her reclusive life with a proper regard for such verifiable facts as are known, and the result is one of the most commercially successful solo bioplays in the history of the genre. In addition to creating the role on Broadway and subsequently taking it on the road, Julie Harris appeared in a PBS version of the play taped at a 1976 Los Angeles performance, and that telecast (which can be streamed on Amazon Prime) has caused her to be indissolubly identified with part and play alike. While “The Belle of Amherst” continues to be performed by regional theater companies all over the U.S. and was revived off Broadway in 2014, nobody ever writes about it without making mention of Harris’ delicate, subdued performance, which is widely regarded as definitive.

You’d think such a play would have been taken up as soon as the Covid-19 pandemic closed American theaters and forced them to resort to streaming video, not least because as a one-hander it presents none of the logistical challenges of an ensemble production. But Palm Beach Dramaworks’ new online version of “The Belle of Amherst,” starring Margery Lowe, jointly produced with Coral Gables’ Actors’ Playhouse and taped without an audience in PBD’s 218-seat theater, appears to be the first one to be webcast since the start of the lockdown. It is also PBD’s first fully staged webcast production, and the company is hoping to make its future shows available online after America’s theaters reopen.

If that comes to pass, “The Belle of Amherst” will have made for an auspicious start. Not only is this one of the best theatrical webcasts I’ve seen in the past year, exactly comparable in artistic quality and production values to Undermain Theatre’s “St. Nicholas” and the Wilma Theater’s “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” but Ms. Lowe’s performance is superior in certain important ways to that of Julie Harris.

Heresy? Perhaps, but Harris’ Dickinson was too closely tied to the outmoded view of the poetess (a loaded word I use deliberately in this context) as a tremulous recluse. Ms. Lowe doesn’t play her that way at all: Her Dickinson is witty, occasionally peppery and more than a little bit sly. She makes no bones about being amused to think of her puzzled neighbors regarding her as “Squire Edward Dickinson’s half-cracked daughter,” and you can tell that, like Jane Austen, she has everybody’s number.

William Hayes, PBD’s producing artistic director, has staged “The Belle of Amherst” in so subtle a way that you never notice his fine directorial hand at work. Everything seems to be emanating straight from Ms. Lowe, though Mr. Hayes clearly played a crucial part in shaping her distinctive interpretation. The in-house design team—sets by Michael Amico, lighting by Kirk Bookman, costumes by Brian O’Keefe—has just as clearly gone to infinite trouble to make the show look just the way it should, played out as it is in a simple but comfortable nineteenth-century Massachusetts home.

The only thing missing is the warming presence of a live audience. It always comes as a surprise to hear Harris’ audience chortling in the 1976 telecast—she doesn’t do much to amuse them—whereas Ms. Lowe’s performance is at times audaciously funny, and it would be lovely to hear a roomful of delighted people responding to her crisp wit. But even if you have no choice but to watch “The Belle of Amherst” by yourself, you may be sure that it will both amuse and move you, for Ms. Lowe also has the emotional weight to rise to the dark occasion of the play’s final scene, when death’s black chariot whose “Horse’s Heads/Were toward Eternity” pauses to collect her for the final ride from obscurity to immortality. You will not soon forget the way she speaks those familiar lines.
Mr. Teachout, the Journal’s drama critic, is the author of “Satchmo at the Waldorf.” Write to him at

A Vibrant Emily Dickinson Soars in Video of Live Performance
by Bill Hirschman

It almost hurt. The reminder of the loss of the past year, the palpable yearning for experiencing live theater alongside a couple hundred people.

The unintentional ache washed throughout the superb evocation of the soul of Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst in the video co-production from Palm Beach Dramaworks and Actors’ Playhouse.

But the unfulfilled longing for Live Theater was not why the event available this Friday through Tuesday was so effective. The artistry not only would succeed on stage in front of an audience. The filming of two live performances landed solidly with viewers on a large TV screen with no excuses needed, much more effectively than many other similar efforts.

With a career benchmark performance by Margery Lowe sculpted by William Hayes, this one-woman play delivered a far more multi-faceted and thoroughly engaging portrait than that of the fragile, naïve, hermit with little social experience perpetuated through much of the last century.

This Dickinson brims with life, making wry comments about neighbors who see her as the town eccentric, relating her early experience as a pithy rebel, demonstrating her peace with choices she has made to seclude herself in her home, limning her passionate love of words, and depicting her visceral need to express herself in poetry as some people need oxygen to breathe.

Lowe, an actress of long-proven wide and deep range, seemed born to inhabit and resurrect from the dead the spirit of this far-more-complicated poet than you recall from high school American Lit class.

When Lowe’s Dickinson genially chats with us as surprise visitors, words from her poems and letters flow smoothly as if everyone spoke in unequaled phraseology in everyday conversation. Lowe savors the very sound of a procession of consonants and vowels inside words that catch her fancy.

William Luce’s oft-produced 1976 script is best known as a vehicle for Julie Harris on stage and on PBS, but Lowe and Hayes created their own distinct vision invigorated with controlled energy.

Anyone patronizing South Florida theater for more than a couple of years has seen Lowe’s ability to disappear into a wide range of roles. To make this evening remain involving, she courageously invested herself completely to deliver a never-ending variety of elevated emotions.

Hayes, Dramaworks’ producing artistic director at Dramaworks with input from Actors’ Playhouse’s David Arisco, guides the tone morphing by millimeters over the evening. Early on, Dickinson is the welcoming entertaining host sharing a cake recipe. By the end, she has revealed soul-crippling incidents such as a mentor’s life-changing rejection of her work to the profound love for a pastor expressed in correspondence but realized only in two face-to-face meetings.

Sustaining Dickinson’s homeostasis is her sheer joy in her life as someone who can and must express her observations on everything from her neighbors to, most famously, coping with death.

She says without asking for a shred of sympathy that she is like a bird she found grounded in her garden. On the floor, she mimes asking the bird, “Why sing when nobody hears?” Speaking for both of them, she proclaims, “My business is to sing!”
Earlier, suddenly fascinated when she uses the word “phosphorescence” in describing an acquaintance to us, she impulsively rips a strip out of a newspaper to write down poetic phrases indicative of the word.

While the concepts of death, mortality and immortality are only fleetingly acknowledged in the first half before forming the core of the second, she insists, “The poet lights lamps (that) themselves go out, but the light goes on and on…. If I can ease one life aching or cool one pain or help one fainting robin, I shall not have lived in vain.”

The challenge in this play is the limitations of one performer and one voice carrying the audience for more than two hours. Fortunately, Lowe, Hayes and their lighting designer Kirk Bookman imbued the evening with a wide range of emotional states and tones.

Dickinson/Lowe’s body language was especially instrumental: She rarely stood stock still. Her arms in triple-draped sleeves were usually in motion, shooting out and up for emphasis; her head cocked at more angles than you might think possible. Her facial expressions were amplified by a wide, thin mouth that exposed a warm smile of playfulness one moment, then curled into a dry riposte, then descended into a pained frown.

Lowe played Dickinson for Dramaworks’ 2018 Edgar and Emily. But the tone of that play and the characterizations was intentionally fantasy and comic as the dead Edgar Allan Poe visits Ms. Dickinson. This was totally different.

Hayes’ stage direction was exemplary and he was deeply involved in the video production of a three-camera shoot of two live performances in an empty theater by Ko-Mar Productions, a West Palm Beach firm. His finished product shows deft composition inside the camera, knowing when to cut to a different angle, and smoothly but unobtrusively following Dickinson as she moves around the set. He has Lowe/Dickinson talk directly to an array of non-existent audience members seemingly spread through the auditorium.

This production does not scrimp in any way, from Brian O’Keefe’s layered costuming, Roger Arnold’s soundscape, and Michael Amico’s fine-grained recreation of Dickinson’s home highlighted by period furniture and brick a brac.
But the masterwork was Bookman’s lighting that subtly transported viewers to different places, moods, time of day, changing seasons, magically allowing Dickinson to take us back and forth in time.

This production contains two seeds of a potential post-pandemic paradigm for South Florida theater. First, there have been a handful of co-productions in this part of the state before (Dramaworks’s Ordinary Americans with GableStage a year ago). But with smaller budgets, the idea of a sharing expenses and moving the production to a different county may become more common.

Second, Hayes has been urging his colleagues around the country to develop a joint system, when shows are staged live in front of audiences again, in which the production is professionally filmed, skillfully edited and proactively marketed across the country online to paying patrons as a second revenue stream, much as the Stratford Festival in Canada and the National Theatre in Great Britain have been doing for many years.

In that vein, this production of The Belle of Amherst provides a long visit with a masterful storyteller—both the poet and the production.

The Belle of Amherst is available to download for a single livestream at the patron’s convenience April 2-6 from Palm Beach Dramaworks and Actors’ Playhouse. Subscribers to either company’s 2020-21 season who did not request a refund have free one-time access. Others can buy access for $30. For technical reasons, tickets can be purchased only through PBD’s website: or box office: 561.514.4042, ext. 2

A coproduction with Actors' Playhouse


Based on the life of Emily Dickinson, this one-woman show tells the story of the independent, enigmatic, reclusive, witty poet through her letters, verse, and the playwright’s rich imagination, interweaving the voices of friends, family, and acquaintances to create a vivid portrait of the artist.

Sponsored by
Sandra and Bernie Meyer, Associate Producers

Tickets are $30 and all proceeds will benefit PBD and Actors' Playhouse, supplying much-needed revenue at a time when the theatres are earning no income. Once a ticket is purchased, the play can be viewed at the ticket holder’s convenience any time from April 2 through April 6. For technical reasons, tickets can be purchased only through PBD’s website at or by calling the box office at 561.514.4042 x2 during the hours of 10:00 am to 10:00 pm EST Friday April 2 through Tuesday April 6.
Please consider donating to PBD. With your support, we can continue to offer a variety of programs virtually and preserve our reserve funds as we await the return to our live, mainstage performances later in the year.