Emily Dickenson gets wild

Play challenges traditional view about famed author

Posted: Thursday, May 04, 2000

Emily Dickinson loved her sister-in-law Susan, there's no doubt.

Conventional wisdom has held that it was love with a small ``l,'' a chaste, sisterly love. But playwright Madeleine Olnek and others hold it was love with a capital ``L,'' a passionate, romantic love that matured and endured over their 38-year friendship.

Perseverance Theatre opens the premiere of Olnek's comedic play about Dickinson, ``Wild Nights With Emily,'' on Friday night. The play runs four times a week through the end of the month at the Douglas theater.

``It definitely takes a very irreverent, politically incorrect view, but I believe a historically accurate view of Emily Dickinson's life, and if people are ready to see that, they should come,'' said Peter DuBois, the director of ``Wild Nights With Emily.''

``I think it's exciting to take a historical icon, a sacred cow, and research over the past decade really shows something else,'' DuBois said. ``She wasn't this spinster who hid in an attic and only wrote for an audience of one. She had this life-long relationship and this passion that inspired her and drove her creativity,'' DuBois said.

Dickinson wrote more than 800 poems between 1850 and her death in 1886, but it was only after her death that she became famous. She has typically been depicted as a reclusive, delicate, eccentric virgin.

``Wild Nights with Emily'' Pay-as-you-can preview 7:30 p.m. tonight, opens 8 p.m. Friday at Perseverance Theatre. Regular performances 8 p.m Friday and Saturday nights, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 6 p.m. Sundays, through May 28, tickets $18-$22 Friday and Saturdays and $13-$17 others, Pay-as-you-can May 17. Recommended for mature audiences.

Actress Marta Lastufka plays the celebrated poet as a vibrant, funny writer, smitten and committed to the object of her affections.

``It makes you think about the person a lot. It's enjoyable to be around the persona of this great poet, and she's this quirky human being. It's very plausible,'' said Albert McDonnell. McDonnell is the sound designer for the production and has watched the play develop over the past month.

Actress Shelle Tichy plays Susan Dickinson, a classmate of Emily's at girls school and later the wife of Emily's brother Austin. The two women were next-door neighbors for 30 years, and Susan was well documented as Emily's close friend, audience, critic and poetic collaborator. Tichy's Susan adds even more depth to their relationship.

Katie Jensen, Ken Burch, Ed Christian, Rick Bundy and Ekatrina Oleksa play 36 different characters in the fast-paced comedy. Award-winning guest set-designer Rachel Hauck has created a stage that accommodates the dozens of scenes flying past, jumping from modern day to Dickinson's time.

DuBois has been a fan of Olnek's work since they were students together at Brown University.

``She has a facility for taking the way we're used to watching TV or movies, and incorporates those structural ideas. Short scenes, ways of combining images, the way she approaches time. Scenes overlap and she fractures time, but it's easy to follow. There's lots of slapstick. It's very absurdist,'' DuBois said.

Olnek based the text of the play on diaries, journals, poems and letters by Dickinson.

``She bends the facts in search of the truth, but there's tons of letters, poems, and the situations (in the play) that come from the research,'' DuBois said.

Olnek drew heavily on the 1998 book by Martha Nell Smith and Ellen Louise Hart, ``Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson.'' Both women are English professors and scholars of Dickinson and have examined hundreds of Dickinson's original letters and manuscripts. Many of these documents show evidence of having been cut and erased, a censorship they attribute to Mabel Loomis Todd, the woman who edited the first published volume of Dickinson's work in 1890.

``People have always known the relationship (between Emily and Susan) was there, but what's come up in recent research, the past five years, is how much Mabel Todd edited her papers,'' he said.

Todd, who was also the mistress to Emily's brother Austin, acquired possession of all of her papers following her death. Hart and Smith maintain she deliberately expunged many affectionate references Emily made to Susan.

Todd's affair with Susan's husband was public knowledge. The researchers state that although Todd never met Emily in person, her brother's mistress later presented herself as an authority on Emily's work and set in motion the sexless spinster myth and many of the fallacies about the poet.

Actress Patricia Hull portrays Todd as an opportunist and busybody in ``Wild Nights With Emily.'' In the play, Todd erases and changes dedications, adds words and cuts up pages partly out of spite for Susan.

``We're not presenting her as a homophobic who was afraid of lesbians,'' DuBois said, ``but more as a savvy marketer (who said) `Let's create this myth around the recluse spinster.'''

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