By Tulis McCall
Isn’t it odd how a name can be deceptive? Mabel Loomis Todd, for instance. Sounds like a milk-toast, an old fashioned woman who was reticent and uncertain. Someone with a small personality who shunned the spotlight.
Nope. Not hardly.
As beautifully portrayed by Kathleen Chalfant, Mabel Loomis Todd is a force with which to be reckoned. She does not suffer fools, even if they are the ones listening to her in the present. Where we are is Point Breeze Inn, Hog Island Maine, 1931. It has been 13 years since Todd’s stroke, and it is a year before her death. As if sensing this, Todd opens her heart and mind to us. What was supposed to be a talk on Emily Dickinson becomes a “tell all”.
Todd’s story more or less begins when she and her husband David moved to Amherst, Massachusetts in the early 1880’s. David, an astronomer, was to be the director of a hoped for Observatory. In Amherst they met the Dickinson Family and became great friends with all of them, according to Mabel. The truth of the tale is not as certain as the truth of the actual event of tonight’s lecture.
This actual event has its own sense of history and charm. To begin with, Chalfant delicately weaves herself into your mind and heart. Chalfant is a chameleon of the highest order, and this script lends itself to her talents. Soon it is not lost on us that we are on a time bridge. We accept that it is 1931, where Emily Dickinson is not a thing of the past. She is directly connected to the person in front of us. Todd is the connection that pulls us into the very real world of Emily Dickinson and her family.
Rebecca Gilman has created a believable premise for this story – difficult to do with historical plays. The only slip up is the “dialogue” that Todd has with her daughter Millicent who is unseen, standing in the shadows and commenting when her mother wanders off the subject of Emily. Chalfant is forced to do that most unnatural task of repeating what her daughter is saying and then answering. It is a cumbersome element and unneeded. Especially here in New York where eavesdropping is a favored past time. We do not need the other side of the conversation in order to know what is going on. Chalfaont, however, handles this situation with skill and grace to the extent that most people, my guest included, were engaged completely.
Chalfant’s performance is filled with the pleasure she seems to feel about Mabel Todd as well as her complete commitment to the tale. And what a tale it is. While the story of Emily Dickinson and the publication of her poetry by Todd in 1890 is the center of the evening, it is the story of Todd herself that takes the lead.
Mabel Louis Todd was in love with life. Every sight, sound, taste, touch and scent of it. She made no apologies for wearing dresses that showed her ankle or of drinking the occasional glass of wine or of allowing herself physical relationships. Being married to one man did not prevent her from loving another. How could it? Her passion for Emily Dickinson’s poetry was only one of may passions that she had. That this one also made her famous to the extent that she was a favorite on the lecture circuit, earning her own money, was a point of which she was very proud. When other people called her “A Woman of the World” in a disparaging manner, she embraced the term in her own way and held her banner high.
The combined talents of Gilman and Chalfant serve to shine a light on both Todd and Dickinson. We and we leave inspired, enlightened, and headed home to crack open our copies of Dickinson and read with new eyes.
WITH Kathleen Chalfant.
Cate McCrea (scenic design); Candice Donnelly (costume design); Betsy Adams (lighting design); Margaret Montagna (sound design).
Produced by The Acting Company in association with Miranda Theatre Company, at 59E59 Theaters(Val Day, Artistic Director; Brian Beirne, Managing Director). Through November 17. The performance schedule is Tuesday – Friday at 7:30 pm; Saturday at 2:30 pm & 7:30 pm; and Sunday at 2:30 pm. Please note the following added performances: Thursday, November 7 and Thursday, November 14 at 2:30 pm. Single tickets are $25 – $35 ($26 for 59E59 Members). Tickets are available by calling the 59E59 Box Office at 646-892-7999 or by visiting www.59e59.org. The running time is 85 minutes, with no intermission.