A solo show that tells all the truth, but tells it slant, Rebecca Gilman’s “A Woman of the World” offers a lecture by Mabel Loomis Todd, a 19th-century writer, editor and sexual iconoclast. Because Loomis Todd is played by Kathleen Chalfant, an actress of rigor and effulgence, the play also provides a master class in how to take a shopworn form and make it nearly new.
It is 1931 and we are seated, we learn, in the parlor of the Point Breeze Inn on Hog Island, a Maine outcropping that Loomis Todd bought with proceeds from her work and lectures. (The rustic-chic set design by Cate McCrea makes an awkward space almost elegant.) The inn’s owners have invited Loomis Todd to give a lecture she has given often, “The Real Emily Dickinson.”
As a mistress of Dickinson’s older brother, Austin, and the woman eventually charged with preparing a posthumous collection of her poems, Loomis Todd burnished herself with Dickinson’s celebrity, which even in a pre-TMZ era, was substantial. Then (and even now: Apple+ just introduced a sexy bio-series with Hailee Steinfeld as a libertine, radically feminist Emily), Dickinson generated nearly as many legends as there are dashes in her poems. A nobody? Hardly. She was, depending on whom you asked, a shut-in, a heretic, a secret epileptic, a mystic, a nymphomaniac, a nun with bad hair who wore only white. People wanted — and want — her life and her poems explicated.
But Loomis Todd, at 75, shortly before her death, decides instead to deliver “The Real Mabel.” She details her childhood; her adolescence; her unorthodox marriage to her husband, the astronomer David Peck Todd; her passionate relationship with Austin; her position as “the first, best champion of Emily’s genius.” This is her letter to the world, much to the chagrin of her adult daughter, Millicent, who seems to be cowering behind one of the parlor’s bookshelves.