Review: The Belle of Amherst by Austin Shakespeare
by Jessica Helmke

I told myself, "I should have brought my favorite pen. Or maybe my secret stash of amateur poems? Some decorated stationary perhaps? Then again, freshly baked sugar cookies are sure to do the trick. . . ."

I was finally going to meet her. The dark, secluded and intriguing poetic genius herself, Ms. Emily Dickinson. I waited patiently and quietly in my chair for over an hour, but she never showed.

Instead, a woman dressed in white, full of tenacity, vigor and passion coyly offered me a pastry.

"I thought she was depressed?" I wanted to ask the usher, as I double checked the program.

Helen Merino (photo: Austin Shakespeare)But vivacious Helen Merino continued to speak there on the stage before us, occasionally sipping tea, ever so properly, almost childlike. She drifted from one setting to another like a cloud, holding one prop then another, grounding herself and beaming familiarity. Her attention engagingly hopped through a series of delightful stories with never a threatening intention, and I could almost smell Massachusetts in the fall. Amherst was her menagerie, her home, her paradise. I felt so thoughtfully selected by Ms. Emily that by the time she told me I was a poem and she loved me, I believed her.

How is it she could express her thoughts with such precision and diction that her writings blended into the monologue with the ease of tempera color into water? When the time came, Emily addressed the issue of her eccentricity. Some would call it wit, but to me it seemed to be simple honesty, truth during a time when society was more aware of the likeness of men than of its own expectations of gracious womanhood. She spoke mainly of how she always different.

But what insanity it was to imagine she was ever awkward or unbeautiful in any way! She was set her apart from the others by her respect for precision in thought, an acknowledgment of surroundings, and her belief in the delicacy of life. It wasn't the all-white clothing or anonymous poetry in her journals. Emily Dickinson was intensely in love with words.

By intermission, I was ready to put a ring on her finger. Where had she been all my life? Could all the critics and literary analysts of the past of been wrong? It appeared so. With The Belle of Amherst Austin Shakespeare gave me my holiday blessing in disguise. The world on the stage and the places she spoke of became intensely real. I instantly recognized not the loneliness but instead the aloneness of great writers. I remembered the yearning and urgency of the artist to tell a story. And I basked in the happiness of a woman living in the merriment of her poetry.

Someone once stopped by the Dickinson homestead how to get to a certain address. Emily directed her to the town cemetery.

As for as the hermit, the shadow of a woman I was expecting to meet? A tide must have stolen her, because thanks to Helen Merino the actress, William Luce the playwright, and Austin Shakespeare, I met the most glowing soul in the theatre yesterday. And to think, she'd been there all along.

Good one, Ms. Emily. Definitely worth writing about.

The Belle of Amherst
by William Luce
Austin Shakespeare

November 14 - December 01, 2013
Rollins Theatre
Long Center
701 Riverside at South First,
Austin, TX, 78704