It’s the mid 1920s. Upon publication of a newly expanded and edited, definitive edition of the poet’s oeuvre, we’ve gathered at the rustic Hog Island (Maine) Audubon Camp to hear Mabel Loomis Todd’s “informal entertainment,” The Real Emily Dickinson.
Our speaker also edited the first edition and, in fact, got it published by reading aloud to an editor – “in profile.” (She demonstrates.) “Did I make her a household name…to that I would humbly say, yes,” the self-effacing egotist tells us. Now in her seventies, she promises to illuminate her “dear friend” and island neighbor.
Dried flowers hang from the rafters. Botany prints hang on the wall. (Set -Cate McCrae) We hear birds and wind. Todd enters and addresses our intimate audience. She wears a drop waist ivory cotton shift and boots. (Just right Costume -Candice Donnelly)
Across the room she intermittently hears, acknowledges, and speaks to co-editor/daughter Millicent who tries in vain to keep her rambling mother from revealing family secrets. Actress Kathleen Chalfant practically conjures her character’s progeny with focus, reaction, and pitch perfect response time.
Raised in poor circumstances, Todd is nonetheless a confident libertarian, apparently talented in both art and music. She exudes entitlement. Marriage to an astronomer brought travel about which she lectured. When the couple moved from Amherst, Massachusetts to a cabin on the island, destruction of pristine nature alarmed her so much she made it a point to eventually purchase as much land as possible.* Descriptions of nature are infectiously passionate, poetic in their own rite.
Todd tells us she met and befriended William Austin Dickinson (Emily’s brother) and his wife Susan through her husband, David. Emily, a recluse, lived in her own house because, the speaker conjectures “she didn’t suffer fools.” It’s clear from first description, she lusts after Austin while reaffirming love for her mate. Did I say she’s a libertine? So, as it turns out, is her husband.
Pinballing between lines of thought, Todd talks about life with her husband and the course of a tempestuous, self-congratulatory affair with Austin. “He was never so happy.” She seems to find it odd that Susan cut her off about that time. We’re told that going to Emily’s to play piano for her and sister Vinnie cemented the friendship.
When Emily died, her letters were destroyed as per her wishes. (There were over 300 to Susan.) Poetry remained and was rediscovered tucked away. Todd becomes vituperative about Lavinia who’s publishing her own definitive edition of the work.
At first she apologizes for tangents, but gradually the talk becomes an exorcism. Todd is metaphorically drunk with it. Backtracking, initial statements are corrected. The truth is surprising. There are a few regrets – none including her behavior – but no apologies. We end with a graceful, if self conscious epilogue in deference to nature.
Kathleen Chalfant is vibrant. She IS Mabel Loomis Todd – intelligent, articulate, cultured, quick, hedonistic, and arrogant. The actress radiates health and strength. It’s easy to believe she’s one with nature. Desire manifests as primal as a salmon swimming upstream. A masterful portrayal.
Valentina Fratti’s direction is terrific. The clarity of Todd’s darting mind, her start-stop deliverance never seems less than authentic. Distinctive personality traits are gradually revealed beyond text.
* Daughter Millicent Todd Bingham, negotiated with the National Audubon Society to have a nature study facility established on the island at Point Breeze. The Audubon Nature Camp opened in the summer of 1936. https://hogisland.audubon.org/
Photos by Carol Rosegg
A Woman of the World by Rebecca Gilman
Directed by Valentina Fratti
Through November 17, 2019