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Wild Nights With Emily

A dramatic comedy

One of the delights of Madeleine Olnek’s Wild Nights With Emily, with Molly Shannon playing the title role, is how funny it is, fresh and funny and absurd. Olnek takes one of the many Emily Dickinson theories – that the famous ‘spinster recluse’ had a lifelong love affair with Susan Gilbert, her childhood friend and eventual sister-in-law – and runs with it, flinging open the doors, letting in light and passion and life.

Poster image for the Emily Dickinson comedy Wild Nights With EmilyEmily and Susan are first seen as girlhood friends, taking long walks together, talking, experimenting with kissing. Kissing leads to passionate embraces. When Susan suddenly decides to marry Emily’s brother, Emily is heartbroken, but Susan reassures her she’s doing it for them. It will be perfect. She and Austin (Kevin Seal) will live in the house right next door, and she and Emily can go on as before.

As grown women, Emily and Susan (Susan Ziegler) steal passion when they can, and send hundreds of notes back and forth to one another throughout the day. Meanwhile, Emily writes poetry, and so much of it is about Susan, that Sue is flattered, impressed, and urges Emily to try to get published. 

Olnek’s refreshing take is not a story of star-crossed lovers or tragic renunciation. It’s the story of two women who figure out the best way to keep seeing each other. Susan checks in with Emily every day, asking to read whatever she’s working on. Matter-of-factly, Emily pulls a batch of poems out of her belt, removes a scrap of paper from her bun, opens her locket to take out a tiny slip of paper. She is literally covered in poetry. This is a great example of Olnek’s style. It’s respectful, but also alive. It’s serious, but tongue-in-cheek. Olnek’s approach gives Emily room to breathe. At last.

– Sheila O’Malley, RogerEbert.com

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