How do you make one of America’s most famous recluses come to life on stage? That is the knotty question posed by William Luce’s play The Belle Of Amherst, which originally ran on Broadway in 1976, in chronicling the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson, one of the country’s greatest poets. Clad in a fitted white dress, her hair rolled up in a homely bun, Joely Richardson impressively inhabits the role of Dickinson. At turns warmly confiding to the audience then a girlish bundle of self-doubt and nervous energy, Richardson brings verve to the one-woman show. Luce’s play stitches together Dickinson’s diary entries and letters with poetry interspersed throughout to powerful effect.

It seems unlikely that Dickinson would ever have opened up to anyone much less a new New York theater crowd, but that’s really beside the point. The conceit is effective in unlocking this otherwise hermetically sealed personality – exposing and elucidating her life for the audience to see. The role was originated on Broadway by Julie Harris, who won a Tony for her performance.

Richardson, the daughter of the late Vanessa Redgrave and sister to the late Natasha Richardson, has serious acting in her blood, though most American audiences will know her for her turn on FX’s cult TV show Tip/Tuck.  Her gravitas comes in handy with material that could be a saccharine in lesser hands. Watching Richardson muse on the meaning of words (“phosphorescent”), one has the sense of the real struggle the poet might have daily encountered – and well worth the price of admission alone.

The Belle Of Amherst is playing through Jan. 25 at The Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd Street. Click here to buy tickets.

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