After watching Nancy Heusel perform The Belle of Amherst at Kempf House in 2004, I wanted to run home and read every word Emily Dickinson ever wrote. The setting in a real nineteenth-century house made it almost seem like we were sitting in Dickinson’s home in Amherst. There was no need for a stage set–Heusel wrote at the Kempfs’ desk, sat in their easy chair while sewing, looked out the window through lace curtains, and often turned toward the audience to talk directly to them.

Ann Arbor will have another chance to see this amazing performance when Heusel returns to Kempf House on October 18 and 19. Now a great-grandmother, Heusel says “I’ve grown and changed” in the ten years that have elapsed since. “I appreciate more the forces of death, love, nature–our mortality,” all things that Dickinson writes about.

Heusel has a long history of performing in venues all around Ann Arbor, ranging from the APA (a professional theater company that had a U-M residency in the 1960s) to the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, and, more recently, the Michigan League Dinner Theater. Her longtime day jobs as head of Greenhills’ theater department and director of religious education at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church also used her theater training. Now retired, she still works part-time as head of the church’s theater ministry.

A lover of Dickinson’s poetry, Heusel had often thought that the Kempf House would be a perfect place to put on William Luce’s one-woman play, first performed in 1976 by Julie Harris. Luce used Dickinson’s poems, letters, and diaries to create a moving portrait of her life. Heusel casually mentioned this idea to a friend at St. Andrew’s who was also on the board of Kempf House, which led to her first production of the play in 1997. The funds raised were used to repair the Kempf House’s 1877 Steinway grand piano. The 2004 performance benefited an endowment fund, while the upcoming one is again going to the piano, this time for a major restoration.

The 1853 house is named for Pauline and Reuben Kempf, both music teachers, who lived there from 1890 to 1953. They bought the Steinway from a college student leaving town and used it to teach piano and voice. It was at the time the only grand piano in town and was often borrowed for U-M musical functions, transported by horse and wagon. Now 137 years old, the piano has multiple problems including sticky keys, uneven treble tones, and a cracked soundboard, all calling for major work which will cost about $60,000.

Although Dickinson’s words are older than the Kempf House Steinway, they need no more work than the attentions of a fine actress performing them in the perfect setting.