Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre
Written by Rebecca Gilman
Directed by Courtney Sale
Featuring Denise Cormier
Review by Kitty Drexel
“Yes, she was a genius but nothing really happened to her. She never left her house!” – Mary Loomis Todd on Emily Dickinson in A Woman of the World
STREAMING — The summary on the MRT website for A Woman of the World buries the lede. It focuses on her ties to poet Emily Dickinson as a way to lure audience members with Protestant leanings. The summary fails to emphasize famous New Englander Mabel Loomis Todd’s more modern fleshly proclivities: she was into open-marriages centuries before it was cool and took great pleasure in sex.
Todd (Denise Cormier) is remembered for publishing Emily Dickinson’s poetry and for saving Hog Island. She also had a racy, 13-year affair with Dickinson’s brother Austin in Dickinson’s house while Dickinson was upstairs. Todd and Austin kept at it like bunnies until Austin’s death in 1895. Good for them.
In A Woman of the World, It takes Todd 45 minutes to get to the point. First, she talks down to her audience the way old, white men talk to women and children with a wink and a chuckle as if we’re all in on some inside joke that doesn’t exist. They intend to be charming. It doesn’t work.
Then Todd apologizes for taking up our time and occupying space. She said about being Dickinson’s first editor, that she would never claim to have discovered Dickinson. She said she brought Dickinson to light, and she doesn’t make this point out of vanity. It’s difficult to hear second-hand modesty from artists representing a woman long dead when Todd clearly lived without remorse or excuses.
Lines like, “And I’ve gotten off-track again. I’m sorry.” don’t give Todd character. The audience wants Todd to get lost in her story and to tell secrets. These details invite us into her experiences. We get to be her confessors. Apologies cheapen that for us.
After the halfway point, A Woman of the World blossoms into a flower of a show. Gilman, Sale and Cormier hit their strides. They don’t have to do any more explaining or introducing. All three can discuss with great passion the love affair between Todd and Austin Dickinson: they exchanged letters via coded public conversation; they met in Emily Dickinson’s home to consummate their love; there was poetry, and sexy sex, and they bought an island. Buying your wife an island to protect its natural beauty for all time is incredibly romantic. People should do that for their partners more.
Denise Cormier gives us her best performance in the second half. She uses her hands in gestures like a dancer. Cormier tells the story well. She’s charismatic and easy to like. Listening to her tell intimate tidbits about her romantic adventures with Austin was like listening to a conversation between friends.
The lace-front on Cormier’s lace-front wig needed to be glued down. The folks working backstage did Cormier a disservice in not telling her. Even with social distancing, you can’t tell me that the camera person didn’t notice, that the performance was done in one take, or that there wasn’t someone, anyone looking at a visual read. Someone made a choice to allow Cormier’s lace to flap in the wind and it was the wrong one.