Play review: `Wild Nights with Emily'

Posted: Sunday, May 07, 2000

Madeleine Olnek's play, ``Wild Nights With Emily,'' is a good antidote to ``The Belle of Amherst'' by William Luce, but fails to unravel the enigma of Emily Dickinson.

With this production the tradition of minimalist set design at Perseverance has reached new highs (or rather lows) and consists of a desk, a piano, and two chairs. The austere set works, and works well to frame the action of the play, but it is uncertain how much farther this particular style can be explored - unless they remove one of the chairs.

Particular high points of the play are Ekatrina Oleska's rabid academic denunciation of labeling Dickinson a lesbian (which, in a milder view, is the position I hold. One of Dickinson's own poems, #1484, reads: We shall find the Cube of the Rainbow. / Of that, there is no doubt. / But the Arc of a Lover's conjecture / Eludes the finding out).

Emily's (Marta Ann Lastufka) meeting with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a prominent Bostonian literary critic portrayed by Ken Burch, is the best sustained comedic moment of any recent season, but is not enough to carry the entire play.

"The play is trapped, uncomfortably, between historic revisionism and histrionics, between essay and farce."

Also worth noting are Rick Bundy's eyebrows. If ever actors engage in dramatic competition based on particular body parts, Rick Bundy's eyebrows are sure to be gold medallists. And it is always amusing to see Ken Burch in a dress. The costumes, in general, are exquisite.

Having said that, there are fatal flaws with this play. It is engaging, but it fails to gather. Emily is a nebbish at the beginning, wins the love of Susan in the middle, and dies a nebbish at the end. Where is the transformation? If love can't change us, what can? The ending is somewhat unsatisfactory. The play simply stops. There is no dramatic arc. The larger questions Dickinson poses - her attraction and repulsion with fame, her spiritual struggles, her hermitage, her very existence as a Modern poet in a pre-Modern society - are addressed briefly, if at all. (Perhaps the continuous fascination with Dickinson stems from the fact that the questions she poses have no answers.)

Perseverance claims this play is for mature audiences. Would that it were so. The poster, photographed by Mark Daughhetee, is an excellent piece of icon smashing marketing. Unfortunately, it has little to do with the actual play.

I may have enjoyed ``Wild Nights'' more if I knew less about Emily Dickinson. Rather than being an absurdist, alternate world version of Dickinson, it hews rather closely to the current academic assessment of her as passionate, ironic and humorous writer. The play is trapped, uncomfortably, between historic revisionism and histrionics, between essay and farce.

This review will be dismissed by some as another male critic failing to get the point - a not uncommon event well portrayed in ``Wild Nights.'' There is no doubt that Emily was misappropriated by her brother's mistress . . . but also, in my view, by this play.

The thousand poems of Michael Christenson lie locked up in a drawer somewhere, patiently awaiting his demise.

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