Since her death in 1886, poet Emily Dickinson has remained an enigma. She has been described as the first American modernist, a poet of the Civil War, a 19th-Century female poet, a Romantic poet and the “last flower of American Puritanism.”
In William Luce’s play “The Belle of Amherst,” actress Natalie Ross (of “All My Children” fame) presents an in-depth character study of this great American poet. At the same time, the show explores Dickinson’s poems, often introducing audiences to much of her work for the first time.
“The play gives you a flesh-and-blood sense of the woman,” said Ross, who has been performing this one-woman show for the past 10 years at colleges, schools, senior citizen centers and other places throughout the country. Dickinson “was a funny, gutsy, lively person, even though she was a recluse. She was not a boring spinster,” Ross said.
Ross’ California debut in the Dickinson role takes place at 8 p.m. Monday at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.
Dickinson was born in 1830 in Amherst, Mass. Not only did she grow up in this small New England town, but she also spent the greater part of her life there, where she wrote 1,775 poems.
“She really wrote all kinds of poetry,” Ross said. “Some poems are full of hope and so expansive. Others make you gasp because they are so despairing.”
In “The Belle of Amherst,” Ross is dressed in wig and period costume, reminiscing about specific incidents in Dickinson’s life. In other moments, Ross creates various characters and converses with them or talks directly to the audience. “Through the magic of acting, people have the opportunity to experience her intellect, wit and tremendous focus,” Ross said.
Originally from Pasadena, Ross attended Muir Junior College before studying acting with Eleanor Dopp at the Pasadena Academy of Drama. During the 1950s, she performed in several small, local theaters. In 1961, she was cast in the original Broadway production of “Come Blow Your Horn.” Soon after, Ross met her husband of 26 years and decided to take a 12-year hiatus from the theater to raise her three children. Since 1980, Ross has portrayed the scheming, manipulative and selfish Enid Nelson on the daytime drama “All My Children.”
While researching the poet’s life, Ross said she gained much insight into her own roots, since her grandfather also came from New England. “My family was like the Dickinson family in the sense that you must not show things about yourself or express your feelings,” she said. “It helped me understand myself.”
Dickinson’s conviction to her work also instilled Ross with encouragement to continue pursuing her acting career. “She cleared everything else out of her life and focused on her work. She wrote from her heart and not everyone could accept that,” Ross said. “What she was saying is that you have to follow your own drummer. You have to do what you think is right for you.”
California Lutheran University is at 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks. Admission to “The Belle of Amherst” is $5. For information, call (805) 492-2411.