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Emily – Off Broadway Theater Review




picture - EmilyTheater Review

by Chad Menville

published September 25, 2009



now playing Off Broadway at the Kirk Theater

through September 27


The play takes place backwards, chronologically -- beginning with Emily at 29 years and concluding when she is 17 years of age. Emily wants nothing more than to sit in her shade all day. She’s the Ferdinand of homebodies, the Jandek of scribes. One day after her death, Emily will be celebrated as one of America’s greatest poets and undisputedly the most talented woman poet in the English language. But not yet. From her bedroom she will first produce 1,775 poems. With few literary influences other than The Bible, Shakespeare, and church hymnals, she writes down her fears and desires into verses, the bulk of which are discovered by her sister, Lavinia, only upon Emily’s death. According to Lavinia, Emily is a woman who acknowledges the suffering in her world, wanting to ease it, understand it, and enter it.


The Kirk Theatre is a somewhat intimate space. The set design is stark. Some coat hooks, a few wooden blocks, one moveable door to signify the door Emily dare not enter. The stage’s streamlined design is something to be appreciated. After all, let the work speak for itself.  (However, the very old lady sitting directly behind me seems to be convinced a stagehand forgot something. “They don’t even have a chair!” She repeats it, louder.)


All of the actors double-up on characters except for the lovely Elizabeth A. Davis, who plays Emily.  The frequency of switching coats is the reason for all the coat hooks.  I personally was bothered by the technique, but nevertheless, the performances are solid and certainly commendable, particularly the excellent Christopher Bonewitz (as the characters Newton and Mr. Williamson).


With more than a dozen plays to her credit, playwright Chris Cragin approaches Emily as more as lover of poetry than historian. Cragin weaves excerpts from Dickinson’s historical correspondence and poems into the fabric of the play. It is most effective when the poetry and prose fuse.  Because Dickinson led a solitary existence, much of what is known of her is extracted directly from her poetry. And yet the moments when her poetry takes the place of dialogue, beautiful as it is, it’s not a worthy substitution for Cragin’s own interpretation.


The problem is the paradox of the poetry being the selling point.  Actually hearing certain famous lines woven into a play does not help the production.  After all, isn’t a play that has poetic prose always more enjoyable than prosy poetry?  Emily succeeds best in the moments with the longer passages.  These moments convey the most depth because it is when the audience can experience the luxury of beginning to forget that it’s all about poetry, that it then becomes, in a broader sense, more poetic.  In the context of the evening, I often found the strength of Cragin’s writing, along with Steve Day’s direction, even more alive than Dickinson’s rhyme. 


chadmenville @


photo by Rachelle Beckerman


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