She unveiled Dickinson and also found fame
There are iconic women whom we regard as quintessentially New England. Some – such as the poet Emily Dickinson– have been celebrated on stage, TV and film in works such as “The Belle of Amherst” and the Apple TV+ series “Dickinson.”
Playwright Rebecca Gilman has created a piece of theater about a different woman — a very colorful character — who became well-known for helping to bring Dickinson out from the shadows, even though she never actually spoke to the poet and only saw her in her coffin.
Gilman’s “A Woman of the World” is a filmed solo production based on the life of Mabel Loomis Todd, presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre as a video on demand through May 30.
Todd used the springboard of her 13-year relationship with Dickinson’s family and her promotion of the poet’s work — she introduced Dickinson to America in 1890 — as a platform to espouse her unconventional views, especially when it came to the sexual mores of the time.
She was a writer, editor, naturalist, and a beguiling conversationalist and storyteller, a free spirit who in the 85-minute production gives her version of the truth about her many ups and downs, including a long, passionate affair with Austin Dickinson, Emily’s older brother.
Todd is portrayed by Denise Cormier, who gives a skilled, nuanced take on a woman who felt constrained by the shackles society put on women at the time and rebelled against them at every opportunity.
Loomis Todd is able to become a sought-after speaker and lecturer when she first gathers and publishes a posthumous collection of Dickinson poems.
When “Woman” opens, it is 1931 and Loomis Todd is 75, shortly before her death, speaking in the parlor of the Point Breeze Inn, on Hog Island, a small piece of land off the coast of Maine she has purchased with the proceeds of her work and lectures.
The inn has invited her to give a lecture she has delivered many times before – “The real Emily Dickinson” – but instead it quickly becomes a treatise on “the real Mabel.”
Loomis Todd is steadfast in her devotion to her astronomer husband David Peck Todd, even as he embarked on a decades-long series of discreet affairs that ultimately cost him dearly and led to his tragic end.
MRT Artistic Director Courtney Sale directed, and she and Cormier use movement, lighting, asides – Loomis Todd frequently consults with her unseen daughter Millicent somewhere in the audience – to prevent the piece from becoming too static.
Because of the format, it is very difficult to fully appreciate the production values of the film, a shame because they have generally been a great strength of past MRT productions.
That includes the rustic parlor that is part of the set design By Bill Clarke, while MRT stalwart David Remedios contributes original music and a clean, balanced sound design.
It becomes clear that through the years Loomis Todd has created a facade and the disappointments and hurts that marked her later years have gradually chipped away at that façade and the outward veneer she meant much of the evening polishing.
Still, in Sale’s and Cormier’s hands, “Woman” is a vivid portrayal of someone who was far ahead of her time in many ways and who played a vital role in bringing an iconic talent to our attention.
The Merrimack Repertory Theatre production of Bebecca Gilman’s “A Woman of the World.” Directed by Courtney Sale. “A Woman of the World” is being presented by MRT in partnership with the Emily Dickinson Museum. Streamed as a video on demand through May 30. For ticket information, visit www.mrt.org/flood, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 978-654-4678.