Kathleen Chalfant adds another feather to her cap as Emily Dickinson’s posthumous editor Mabel Loomis Todd in the world premiere of Rebecca Gilman’s new one-woman play, A Woman of the World, presented by The Acting Company in association with Miranda Theatre Company at 59E59 Theaters. Staged by Miranda’s artistic director Valentina Fratti with elegant assurance, Chalfant is both fascinating and seductive as this real life woman who in the 1880’s and 1890’s scandalized conventional Amherst, Massachusetts, with her liberated and bohemian behavior long before such goings on became acceptable for women – or men.
The play is in the form of a talk to be given by the vivacious Todd (now 75 years old) in 1931 at the Parlor of the Point Breeze Inn, Hog Island, Maine, situated on a nature haven that she has created by buying the island and throwing out the loggers, the hunters and the trappers. Now a celebrated lecturer, naturalist and editor, Todd’s talk to us, the guests at the Inn, is entitled “The Real Emily Dickinson.” However, she has not given this lecture in 18 years since her stroke and as almost all of the people she will talk about are dead, this frees her up to reveal the true circumstances of her life.
Of course, her claim to fame is having edited the first edition of Dickinson’s in 1886, four years after the poet’s death, at the behest of Emily’s sister Lavinia. She claims to have been Emily’s closest friend. Little by little, the rest of the story comes out. Married to astronomer David Loomis, Mabel moved with him to take the position of director of the Observatory at Amherst College which had not yet been built. A liberated woman, Mabel shocked the college town because she “enjoyed a glass of wine in mixed company and wore dresses that showed (her) ankles,” gaining the nickname of “a woman of the world.”
However, this changes when Austin Dickinson, Treasurer of the College and an accomplished attorney, comes to call with his wife Sue and invite them to dinner. For a year, the two couples became inseparable. And then Mabel who is in an open marriage with David, begins a 13 year affair with Austin in 1892 which puts an end to their evenings at his home and her friendship with Sue. She claims Austin and they were soulmates and their relationship was destined. She also claims he had fallen out of love with his wife who was not his intellectual equal.
What, of course, Mabel does not tell us is that in the late 1880’s she was considered no better than an adulteress who wreaked havoc on an entire family. And what about her claim that she was the reclusive Emily Dickinson’s best friend? The poet was known not to have left her home from 1858 to her death in 1886. Little by little, Mabel reveals the true facts of her life reversing much that she has told us. The date of the lecture in 1931 does, indeed, coincide with her complete edition of Dickinson’s poetry which more recently has been debunked for many textual changes and omission that were not warranted.
As Mabel Todd Loomis, Chalfant is charming company. She seduces us into liking her and believing her version of things before revealing the truth of many of the facts. Much of the play is delivered like a digression or a tangent, certainly not part of the announced talk “The Real Emily Dickinson.” Playing a woman of 75, she seems to drift from one topic to another although admitting that she is not sticking to her prepared text. She is charming and girlish as she continually confesses that she will finally tell the truth of the events of her life as it can’t matter anymore to the discomfort of her daughter Millicent who is supposedly in the room with us. It is to Chalfant’s credit that her performance seems entirely spontaneous as she uses stream of consciousness to structure her talk which she claims to have given hundreds of times in the past.
Chalfant has us eating out of her hand as she feeds us spicy pieces of her story and then digresses to some other topic like her love of nature, the future of the island or her travels with her husband to the world observatories. She also addresses her unseen, off-stage daughter Millicent who helped her edit the updated collection of Dickinson’s poetry which was published in 1931, making her very much a part of the play and a very real presence. Under Fratti’s direction Chalfant addresses Millicent in various parts of the room we are sitting in, varying her perspective as the talk unfolds. The use of the tiny Theater C at 59E59 Theaters makes the play a very intimate experience, almost as though we are sitting in the living room of the island inn which gives verisimilitude to the play.
What will be controversial about the play is how many theatergoers fall in love with her and how many loathe her for the trouble she wreaked on innocent, more traditional people. Even the daughter Millicent makes it clear through her mother’s remarks how inappropriate some of her confessions are and how they embarrass her. In fact, the true life Mabel Todd Loomis had a great deal to answer for although her love of nature did lead to Hog Island becoming a nature sanctuary, of which she tells us she is most proud. Cate McCrae’s set design is a corner of the Maine inn with its wooden settee and many Persian carpets and a window which shows the blue sky and clouds outside. The all-white shapeless dress by Candice Donnelly is typical of early 1930’s outfits and establishes Todd’s age. The subtle lighting by Betsy Adams always directs attention at Chalfant as well as the window that she often refers to in describing the birds and wildlife that roam freely on Hog Island to this day.
Kathleen Chalfant, one of our most distinguished stage actresses who has appeared in the original productions of Wit, Angels in America and Talking Heads, has been given a tour de force role by playwright Rebecca Gilman. The playwright, you may recall, is the author of Spinning into Butter, Boy Gets Girl, Blue Surge, The Glory of Living, and her adaptation of McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Like she did as Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy in her other one-woman show, Rose (2015), Chalfant makes a possibly unsympathetic character one of fascination and wonder. Valentina Fratti’s production has helped her to completely embody this fascinating woman who may not have told the strict truth or lived by other people’s standards.
A Woman of the World (through November 17, 2019)
The Acting Company in association with Miranda Theatre Company
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-892-7999 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: 80 minutes without an intermission