“A word is dead when it is said, some say,” wrote American poet Emily Dickinson. “I say it just begins to live that day.” Intriguing stuff, especially for language geeks like me. But if you believe playwright William Roetzheim's Dickinson, Emily penned that verse amid a marked decline in emotional health. Reclusive living, bottomless mistrust and her parents' ugly dysfunction would catch up with her in her mid-30s; when she died in 1886 at age 55, she'd achieved only marginal fame, having published maybe a dozen of her 1,800 poems.
Such self-imposed exile creates the perfect setting for Lynx Performance Theatre, whose founding artistic director Al Germani is profoundly suited for his role in the company's current turn at this bioplay. As a psychotherapist, he's got the tools for character exploration at his command—the twist is that he uses those tools to dissect the psyches of his personnel as they take on the people they portray. With Dickinson, the result is some of the best experimental theater you'll ever have the pleasure of experiencing, as Rhianna Basore takes wing in what proves to be an exceedingly difficult role.
Roetzheim's Emily drifts in and out of rhyme in her speech, using poetry as a defense against a dank, empty world she was forced to confront. In her wildest imaginings, she finds herself face to face with a playwright (Greg Wittman) who seeks to write a script worthy of her genius. Emily recounts her life in excruciating detail, although Roetzheim is a little breathless in his enthusiasm, occasionally glossing over some of the more informative passages (scholars suggest that Emily was a victim of sexual abuse, but Roetzheim leaves us confused as to the extent she took part).
Basore, meanwhile, is in a world of her own as Emily slowly unravels. The poet's penchant for rhyme and prose merge powerfully as she loses her grip, and Basore exploits this merger with remarkable skill in her consistency of speech and movement. Her deer-in-the-headlights glare is unceasing, beckoning us inside her murky world—a world Germani exploits like the mental-health professional he is. He's not gotten to Dickinson's core so much as Basore's; the result is disarming at its worst and riveting at its best.
“They might not need me,” Emily wrote, “but they might. I'll let my head be just in sight; a smile as small as mine might be precisely their necessity.” What an achingly beautiful overture from a singularly tortured soul; through it all, Emily somehow retained a serious handle on the importance of one's contributions to man's betterment, no matter how seemingly insignificant. Germani, Basore and the others have an unshakable handle on this redeeming element, bathed in a gifted young woman's unceasing torment over life's inequity. Please see this. This review is based on the performance of July 24. Dickinson runs through Aug. 7 at the North Park Vaudeville & Candy Shoppe, 2031 El Cajon Blvd. $15-$18. www.northparkvaudeville.com.