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Tea with 'Emily' still enthralls audiences

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The sun was intense, and Boston was melting gloriously after a big snow.

Julie Harris had fled Springfield, in western Massachusetts, just in time the day before. That city had been buried in the white stuff. The truck with the sets and costumes for her one-woman show, "The Belle of Amherst," had barely made it out of town in time to set up for opening night in Boston.

Presumably, Emily Dickinson, the sublime 19th-century poet Ms. Harris plays in her one-woman show, would not have cared about the snow. In her latter years, Dickinson rarely left her home in Amherst, Mass. Harris, on the other hand, is in the midst of a coast-to-coast tour that marks 25 years since "Belle of Amherst" debuted on Broadway. The performance by Harris, one of America's most distinguished actresses, won both a Tony and, later, an Emmy.

Beneath a 19th-century portrait of women in hoop skirts in the French Room at Boston's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Harris chatted thoughtfully about her alter ego. Her feelings for one of America's most beloved poets are "closer and deeper" than ever, she says. "It's like a really good marriage."

In the play, Dickinson receives a guest (the audience) into her home for tea. She recalls events from her life and recites from her poems and other writings.

You say that doesn't sound like gripping theater? Don't tell that to enthralled audiences. So what is the attraction?

Harris says that at a performance "a woman came up to me afterwards and said, 'This play is all about love, isn't it?' "

"And I said, 'Yes, that's what it's all about." Simple, but true.

In fact, when Harris thinks of Dickinson, love is the first quality that comes to mind. Next comes "courage" and "patience with life and its disappointments. And her humor. She had wonderful humor."

Harris concedes it's a challenge to command the stage alone for 2-1/4 hours. Actor Hal Holbrook, who has performed his own one-man play, "Mark Twain Tonight!," for decades, came to see "Belle" in Seattle recently. He told Harris her performance was "like [taking] one long breath!"

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