How Red the Fire, by David Starkey. At SBCC’s Fé Bland Forum,
Saturday, February 24. Shows through March 3.

Reviewed by Bojana Hill

How_Red_the_Fire.jpgDavid Starkey’s imaginative play How
Red the Fire
blends truth and fiction to unveil the mystery of
Emily Dickinson’s genius and to reflect on her losses and regrets.
Set in 1886 Amherst, Massachusetts, and in a present-day university
in Southern California, How Red the Fire asks what would
have happened if Dickinson’s poems had been burned. Would her
talent have sunk into oblivion, unrecognized?

To American literature professor Anna Young, this loss would
have been irreparable. She is a passionate advocate for Emily
Dickinson’s poetry. The play opens as Teddy, a college student who
thinks a minor in English is “cool,” but who “doesn’t get”
Dickinson, consults with Young about his paper. The edgy repartee
between professor and student provides humorous and at times
satirical commentary on a cultural gap all too familiar to
educators. While Seth Baumhover convincingly portrays a
lackadaisical college student, the spirited Serena Bottiani
embodies a young, ambitious university professor who is pleased to
have tenure, but frustrated at her lack of appreciation and
understanding — perhaps echoing Dickinson’s own sentiments more
than a century earlier.

When the scene switches to the past, Emily and her sister
Lavinia (Kelly Peinado) are enjoying solitary domestic bliss.
Although she is already ill and relies on a cane to walk, Emily
radiates calmness and gentleness. The talented Michelle Osborne
depicts Emily as a complex character who is at once fragile,
independent, and fierce. Whether lamenting the lack of a publisher
for her poetry or embracing single life, Emily is dignified,
intelligent, and kind. Her sister, Lavinia, with whom Emily lived
happily until her death in 1886, is loving and supportive — an
intellectual equal who recognizes Emily’s poetic genius, saying,
“Your gift will justify each transgression …”

In the second half of the play, the “what if” scenario is
imagined: What if Lavinia, who relentlessly pursued publication for
her sister’s poems, perished in a fire, along with all of Emily’s
works? The prospect is grim: Emily lives in a boarding house in
Cambridge, alone and forgotten. Having never recovered from the
tragedy, Emily is unable to write. The modern-day setting is just
as dismal. Professor Young mourns the loss of tenure and the loss
of Dickinson’s poetry. Her final speech expresses a deep longing
for “what might have been.” Under sensitive direction by Jinny
Webber, the play thus intuits that women’s creative endeavors are
inextricably tied with their predecessors whose legacies have paved
the way.


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