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Theatre in Review: A Woman of the World (59E59)

Kathleen Chalfant. Photo: Carol Rosegg

If Emily Dickinson was the belle of Amherst, Mabel Loomis Todd was its chief vixen. The wife of a Smith College astronomy professor, she lived next door to Dickinson, then dined out on that fact for the next fifty years. She also was the first person to edit Dickinson's poems for publication, but her meddling ways made her a figure of controversy. That she had any access to this treasure trove of American literature is because she had an adulterous affair with Austin, Dickinson's married brother. Of course, as she assures the audience, the affair was perfectly proper; after all, she had an open marriage, and her husband, David, had many flings with women. There are times in Rebecca Gilman's new play when Amherst, Massachusetts, resembles another New England town -- the one known as Peyton Place.

A Woman of the World is a solo drama in which Mabel Loomis Todd, now in her seventies -- the year is 1931 -- is giving her umpteenth talk about her dear friend Emily, at a resort hotel on Hog Island, Maine. (Except for the hotel, she owns the island, which is another story altogether.) She is getting ready to publish what she insists will be the "definitive" collection of Dickinson's poems, airily waving away "a competing collection -- edited by a certain distant relative of Emily's -- that has recently been published by a lesser house." Although never mentioned by name, this relative is Martha Dickinson Bianchi, the poet's niece, who threatened Mabel's comfortable role as the keeper of the Dickinson flame.

This rivalry isn't really dealt with, nor is the opprobrium earned by Mabel for her considerable doctoring of Dickinson's poems, fiddling with their punctuation and doing away altogether with the dashes that are one of their most distinctive features. Instead, A Woman of the World is about the unmasking of a narcissist: Mabel begins her canned lecture and, little by little, lets out the truth about herself until she is revealed as a sharp-elbowed literary and romantic adventuress. If nothing else, it's amusing to think about her carrying on so scandalously while living adjacent to American literature's most famous reclusive spinster -- who became famous largely thanks to her neighbor's exertions.

"I confess to you it's been something of a burden to me over the years that men have always found me impossible to resist," she says, offering a nineteenth-century form of humble-bragging. "And it's not because of anything I actively do to attract them. It's because the average man is rarely exposed to someone of my natural talents, and singular charm." If you're going to sit through A Woman of the World, you're going to have to listen to a lot of such talk, all of which is obviously false from the get-go. She speaks in glowing terms of her marriage to David Todd, who, she insists, is both wildly brilliant and sexually insatiable, so much so that, very early in their marriage she gives the green light to his affairs. Once they move to Amherst, she and Austin fall wildly in love, a situation she addresses with self-righteousness. "Like all families, the Dickinsons had their secrets," she confides. "And the most painful one, I soon realized, was that Sue and Austin's marriage was in terrible trouble. And it was all Sue's fault. She was an awful bore." I'm beginning to feel that Sue deserves a play of her own, if only to tell her side of this story.

Most of A Woman of the World involves Mabel recalling how she and Austin ran around on the sly. Lest you think this was a mere case of fooling around, Mabel remembers how "he made a solemn vow to me, that one day I would officially be his wife. In a holy ceremony officiated by God and God alone, he gave me his wedding ring." If Mabel is to be believed, she and Austin eventually entered into a ménage à quatre with David and Caro, his lover (who was also Mabel's cousin). "The four of us spent some very ... responsive time together," she says, simpering.

If you're a Kathleen Chalfant fan, her considerable charms will most likely see you through A Woman of the World. If you have a taste for literary gossip, the script certainly has some jaw-droppers to share. But if you struggle with the blatantly artificial nature of these solo historical confessionals, you may start reciting Emily Dickinson's poems in your head to get through the evening. The difficulty with Gilman's script is that Mabel's lies are so laughably transparent that there's little sport in seeing her face the truth. (This is especially so if you have even a cursory knowledge of Dickinson's career.) Perhaps if she exhibited a greater inner struggle, it would generate more drama, but when it comes to her private life, Mabel is like a sieve, oversharing in a way that is pretty hard to believe. Would even a woman with her colorful past really inform an audience of strangers -- in 1931, no less -- of her preferred birth control method when she was menstruating, which involved David withdrawing before ejaculating? According to the script, Millicent, Mabel's daughter, is in the back of the room, cowering behind a pillar. There were moments when I wondered if there was room for two.

Anyway, with Chalfant at the helm, you won't be bored. Valentina Fratti's capable direction is an asset, as is Cate McCrae's simple but evocative set, Candice Donnelly's costume design, Betsy Adams' lighting, and Margaret Montagna's sound.

And it's certainly true that we're in the middle of an Emily Dickinson moment, what with the 2016 film A Quiet Passion, with Cynthia Nixon giving a fairly conventional portrait of the poet; Wild Nights with Emily, in which Molly Shannon's Emily surrenders to steamy lesbian embraces with Sue; and a new Apple TV series in which Hailee Steinfeld's Dickinson, according to the Times, "takes midnight carriage rides with Death (the rapper Wiz Khalifa) and denounces the patriarchy -- to use a genteel paraphrase -- as bunk." She also "throws raging parties (complete with a hip-hop playlist and twerking), makes out with her bestie (and future sister-in-law) and gets her period." What all of this frantic claiming of her for the twenty-first century indicates is mysterious. But, in this context, if A Woman of the World is an offense against Dickinson, it seems like a very minor one. -- David Barbour

(1 November 2019)

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