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THEATRE: ‘The Belle of Amherst’ opens in Sonoma

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‘The Belle of Amherst’

Runs: May 23 to June 2

Showtimes: Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.

Where: Rotary Stage in Andrews Hall at the Sonoma Community Center

Tickets: sonomaartslive.org/tickets

Emily Dickinson once wrote that only those who have experienced defeat can truly appreciate success, and it is all those defeats in Dickinson’s life that went into the creation of “The Belle of Amherst,” William Luce’s 1976 play about the renowned 19th century poet.

Sonoma Arts Live’s newest addition to its season of classics is the one-woman show, “The Belle of Amherst,” where Emily Dickinson gives a first-person account of her life story while also acting out the part of 15 different characters.

Luce wrote the play that debuted on Broadway in 1976, starring Julie Harris. Jennifer King, who plays Dickinson in Sonoma Arts Live’s production, remembers the play still running when she was a kid, and hopes this show brings to light the real version of Dickinson and discredits popular misconceptions.

“Many people think that (she) was a bore, and what we are finding out is that many times women were represented as less than who they are by the male-dominated society of the time. So many say she was a recluse, she had no love, and what is being discovered is she was an incredibly passionate woman who may have had both male and female lovers, including her sister-in-law,” King said.

The play is based on Dickinson’s letters and poems, but King and director Sharon Winegar are working together to make an accurate representation of Dickinson, not just through her writing but also with her biography and the help of scholars.

King admits Dickinson might have been somewhat withdrawn later in life, but what people today would see as a capable, independent woman, back then was interpreted as a socially inept recluse.

“It’s very humorous, very touching and actually very revelatory to where we are now,” said King. She often is played as a victim and by no means was she that and certainly not in this production.”

Despite being decades old, the play rings true more today than ever, and is again popular as the movie “Wild Nights with Emily” starring Molly Shannon released last month, depicts a satirical telling of Dickinson’s life. While the movie overtly plays up Emily’s romantic relationship with her sister-in-law, King and Winegar hope to be more discreet in their production, leaving the audience to decide what is real and what is not.

“I think “Wild Nights with Emily” is in alignment with what we’re creating as well – a high-spirited woman who is very sensitive, that wrote incredible poetry but was really progressive for her time and very political,” King said.

Sonoma theater-goers are sure to remember King from her sold-out show “Bad Dates” in 2016.

After a smashing success at Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater, Sonoma Arts Live asked King to reprise her role at the Sonoma Community Center.

When the department picked a powerful one-woman show to be their new production, they immediately asked King. King said she would do it under one condition: she picked the director, her old UC Davis professor.

“It takes a lot of courage to do a role about a woman, and so I thought it was important to have an accomplished woman director,” King said.

Before these shows, King began her career in Sonoma back in the ‘90s when she was the Director of Drama at Sonoma Charter School. After receiving her MA degree, King became a professor of theater at Napa Valley College and pursued a freelance acting-directing career in the Bay Area and abroad, doing shows at Aurora Theatre Company, Capital Stage, Berkeley Playhouse and Sonoma County Repertory Theater.

King is especially excited to do a play so close to home and hopes to see some familiar faces in the audience.

“It’s just a really beautiful piece of theater and people are going to think, ‘Oh it’s going to just be so cerebral,’ but it’s not. It’s incredibly funny, it’s really well-writte and it’s wonderful to play,” King said. “I just think it’s a really wonderful evening in the theater, and I think that for those who \ saw ‘Bad Dates,’ it’s going to be fun for them to see me play this very different role.”

‘The Belle of Amherst’

Runs: May 23 to June 2

Showtimes: Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.

Where: Rotary Stage in Andrews Hall at the Sonoma Community Center

Tickets: sonomaartslive.org/tickets

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