The phrase "Emily Dickinson musical" evokes troubling images of the Moth of Amherst doing jazz hands. I have nothing against jazz hands, mind you. It's just that Dickinson's life story seems ill-suited for any stage adaptation, let alone the song-and-dance treatment. Let's review: She valued reticence and solitude, she had a bit of a morbid streak, and she spent the better part of her adult life communicating almost entirely through written correspondence. Cue the chorus line!
Tell It Slant, now playing at the Southside Theater following its world premiere at Mountain View's Pear Avenue Theatre, avoids many of the problems you might expect from a Dickinson musical. It's intelligent and respectful, with haunting songs by Joan McMillen that seem well-matched to the poet's oblique, off-kilter work. There's not a single kickline in sight. All of the actors sing well without resorting to any Les Miz–style power ballads. The play's attempts at humor are often awkward and sometimes even anachronistic, but it's not as if Mel Brooks has invaded 19th-century Massachusetts. Director Virginia Reed does a fine job of staging Dickinson's poems as low-key musical numbers, even if some of the choreography gets a little too literal for my taste. Playwright Sharmon J. Hilfinger even explores the possibility of Dickinson having a lifelong lady-crush without resorting to hot lesbian action. Tell It Slant is, in other words, far from the tasteless travesty that you might expect — in fact, it's so studious and earnest that it's practically inert.
Dramatizing Dickinson's life would present a challenge for any playwright, since the poet didn't exactly leave us with an open book. She requested that most of her correspondence be destroyed upon her death; all we have, then, is a fraction of her many letters and about 1,800 maddeningly elusive poems. She may have had a romance or two along the way, but the details remain unclear. Her religious inclinations and sexual orientation have occasioned a huge amount of speculation and disagreement. Given how little we know about Dickinson's life, it would seem that any biographical treatment ought to be haunted by its own inability to fill in the blanks.
Tell It Slant isn't the first attempt to distill Dickinson's letters and poems into a couple of hours of drama. Alison's House won Susan Glaspell the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1931, but the Dickinson family forbade the playwright to use the family name or even set the play in Massachusetts. And in 1976, William Luce wrote a one-woman play, The Belle of Amherst, which became a Tony-winning vehicle for actress Julie Harris. That play spawned a series of national tours and remains a community theater staple, but Luce's Dickinson is a shallow creation far too eager to please the audience — more winsome schoolmarm than depressive genius.
Hilfinger and McMillen give us a more nuanced version of Dickinson, but they still dramatize her life in a way that feels mighty prosaic. In Tell It Slant, a narrator (Paz Pardo) leads the audience through the major events in Dickinson's life, from age two to spinsterish adulthood. The narrator is perhaps unavoidable, given the general lack of knowledge about the poet's personal life, but her constant presence has a tendency to tamp down any sense of drama or discovery. Dickinson (Caitlyn Louchard), we're told, wasn't always reclusive; instead, she grew up a passionate, rebellious girl who had the misfortune of falling into a love triangle with her brother, Austin (Todd Brotze), and his wife-to-be, Susan (Siobhan Doherty). As you might expect, the triangle collapses into a conventional marriage, with Emily left alone to nurse her wounds after a single transgressive kiss with the woman she loves.
The show owes its title to a Dickinson poem that advises the reader to "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant," concluding that "the Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind." But Hilfinger's script doesn't seem terribly interested in "all the Truth," slanted or not; it's more interested in creating a Dickinson Bay Area audiences can understand. Take, for instance, the suspiciously contemporary attitudes toward Christian fundamentalism. Tell It Slant portrays Dickinson as a precociously headstrong heathen from day one, scoffing at the cartoonish religiosity of her peers. What the play fails to mention is that she spent much of her young adulthood seriously exploring the evangelicalism that swept the Northeast during the 1840s. By 1852, she appeared to have chosen a personal faith more closely aligned with transcendentalism than anything else. Precocious heathenism may have come later, but even then, it's difficult to say that her rejection of Christianity was at any time complete. Her work is full of agnostic doubt, not atheistic certainty. Well into adulthood, she continued to write a large number of poems wrestling with explicitly Christian themes — a fact that Tell It Slant finds inconvenient to share. Hilfinger makes Dickinson palatable to secular audiences, but neglects to meet the poet on her own elusive terms.
Dickinson's poems are full of perplexing dashes that throw the reader off-balance; we're forced to fill in a few blanks here and there as we make sense of her ironies and obscurities. A narrative of her life would do well to evoke that same sense of instability and inconclusiveness. Tell It Slant does its best to find a throughline for those who demand some kind of explanation, but Dickinson, being Dickinson, still manages to slip away.