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A Poet’s Life

Theater Review

Mar. 3, 2009
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"I'm nobody, who are you? Are you nobody, too?" These are perhaps the most famous words ever written by Emily Dickinson-and they are particularly ironic given the esteemed place Dickinson now holds in American literature. Acacia Theatre Company is currently staging a play about her life (through March 8).

Emily, by Chris Cragin, attempts to unravel the reasons for Dickinson's odd behavior, which became particularly eccentric in her later years. Although her reclusive behavior is outlined in the play, Emily doesn't reveal any "aha" moments that provide insights into her past. Furthermore, the play's flashback approach often confuses, rather than educates, the audience.

The play begins with Emily as a young, adult writer. Each subsequent scene is a couple of years earlier, until the day of her college graduation. Strangely, the play takes liberties with the well-known facts of Dickinson's life. For instance, was she really wooed by Newton, a young scholar? This may have been a romantic fable. Also, the play emphasizes Dickinson's close relationship to Sue, her future sister-in-law. In reality their relationship was contentious.

What does become clear about Dickinson and her work is that death and immortality serve as major themes in her life, as well as her writing. As a girl, Dickinson was strongly affected by the death of her little cousin, which was followed by the death of her friend Newton and her mother, among others. The playwright presents us with images of Newton and Emily's mother both in life and in death. Early scenes indicate Dickinson's favorite companions are the ghosts of her past.

The cast does a good job of unraveling this oddly woven tale. Newcomer Shannon Nettesheim impresses as the young Emily. However, she looks like a college girl throughout the entire play. Jason Will creates a strong presence as Emily's boisterous and often drunk older brother. As Emily's sister, Courtney Nelson must walk a fine line between patience and frustration as she keeps the household running.

The playwright deserves credit for not idealizing Emily's family. It's clear that Emily considers her intellect far superior to that of her siblings. She also doesn't have much use for her father, a prominent lawyer (played by Matt Knudson). Instead, she dearly misses the closeness she shared with her mother, sympathetically played by Janet Peterson. The director, David Eggebrecht, ably breathes life into this analytical play.


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