‘Belle of Amherst’ opening this week at Star City Playhouse

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Star City Playhouse opens its official 2017 season with “The Belle of Amherst” starring Linsee Lewis as poet Emily Dickinson.
Dickinson is often remembered as an eccentric recluse who spent much of her life observing life through the front window of her home–and gossiping about those who passed by.
The Belle of Amherst opens with Dickinson sharing her prized recipe for Black Cake, which contains 19 eggs.

Star City Playhouse officially opens its 2017 season on March 24 with the one-woman play, “The Belle of Amherst.”

And what an opening for the community theater that moved from Roanoke to downtown Vinton.

Actress Linsee Lewis is magnificent in her portrayal of 19th century poet Emily Dickinson, generally regarded as an eccentric recluse and non-conformist.

Lewis says she fell in love with Dickinson’s poetry in elementary school. One of the first monologues she ever performed in middle school was from “The Belle of Amherst” which caused her “love for Emily to grow even more and made this show No. 1” on her “theatrical bucket list.”

She once again chose “the Belle” for her final project in acting in college, where she studied under Dr. Robert Chioffi at County College of Morris in New Jersey.

Lewis said she is “beyond honored to be portraying such an amazing and powerful icon” as Dickinson.

Lewis is well known to theatre audiences throughout the region. She recently celebrated 24 years on stage and has performed in numerous productions. Some of her favorite roles include Miss Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls,” Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Viola in “Twelfth Night,” Ida in “See How They Run,” and Ethel Banks in “Barefoot in the Park” with Showtimers Theatre in Roanoke.

Other favorites include Antigone in “Antigone” and Detective Tapolski in “The Pillowman” at Off the Rails Theatre, also in Roanoke. She recently played Margaret Fuller in “Charm,” who she describes as “another iconic female writer well ahead of her time.”

Lewis has also performed with Attic Productions in Fincastle, Little Town Players in Bedford, Studio Roanoke, and has done readings and festivals with Hollins University.

Her first role on stage was Margot in “The Diary of Anne Frank” at Showtimers at the age of 12. In addition, she has worked as a stage manager and director. Lewis is part of the Star City Playhouse resident company.

Emily Dickinson was a prolific poet, composing nearly 1,800 poems, which were unearthed by her sister after her death. Only a handful were published in her lifetime, as her writing was out of step with the times and disparaged by literary critics.

Dickinson was born in 1830 and died at age 55 in 1886. “The Belle of Amherst” starts in 1883 and is based on her poems, diaries, and letters. It is performed in two acts.

In the first act, there are many laugh-out-loud moments as the poet shares her impressions of the significant people in her life– family, friends, supposed suitors, and acquaintances. She peeks out the front window to naughtily gossip about those living or passing nearby.

The second act is more poignant, dealing with her relationship with her father and his death.

While Dickinson did seclude herself at her family’s home for most of her life, playwright William Luce surmises that it was mainly by choice. “I never had to go anywhere to find my paradise,” said Dickinson. “I found it here.”

She took notice of the tiniest of details in life or nature and translated them into poetry.

She seems to have enjoyed deliberately posing as an eccentric, because “every small town needs a local character,” said Dickinson.

Karon Semones Ferguson, who co-owns Star City Playhouse with her husband Marlow, says that they chose “The Belle of Amherst” because they loved it so much when they first saw it performed, and because Star City is “an actor’s theatre” meant “to stretch the actors’ capabilities.”

The play runs about two hours and required Lewis to memorize 78 pages of monologue.

“The glorious thing about theater is that even though we do plays, each one is a bit different as it’s live,” said Ferguson. “Linsee is doing a fabulous job.”

“The Belle of Amherst” opened on Broadway in 1976 with 116 performances to follow, winning a Tony award for its star Julie Harris.

The set for “The Belle of Amherst” at Star City is interesting in and of itself. The Fergusons have been collecting set pieces, furniture, and costumes from their early years in New York and locally once they moved to Roanoke.

Lewis’s costume is a wedding dress from a collection of 400 donated to the Fergusons by a “guy in New York.” Dickinson was known to dress always in white, mainly to confound her community.

The staircase backdrop came from a Saturday Night Live spoof of “Home Alone.” A set doorway is from a Muppets production.

The new Star City Playhouse home has undergone renovations, although Marlow Ferguson recalls a quote that states that “all you need for a play is a couple of boards and passion.”

Lewis hopes this play “will bring new light to people who admire Emily Dickinson and inspire a desire to read more of her work and learn more about this truly phenomenal woman.”

She says she thanks God for her own talent, her mother for her undying love and support, and her “amazing daughter, Faith,” for keeping her young at heart and always inspiring her “to be the best on and off stage.”

The production of “The Belle of Amherst” runs from March 24 to April 9 on three consecutive weekends. Performances are scheduled for Friday nights at 7 p.m. on March 24, March 31, and April 7.  Matinees are planned for Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. on March 25 and 26, April 1 and 2, and April 8 and 9.

Tickets may be purchased at the door or reserved in advance by calling 366-1446. General admission is $10; seniors and students pay $8.

Star City Playhouse is located at 107 South Pollard Street in downtown Vinton. Parking is available behind the theatre at the Farmers’ Market, in Municipal lots, on the side streets, and at Vinton Baptist.