Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member.
Played out in various rooms around the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook, First Folio Theatre’s The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story is a unique experience. Theatre-goers follow Edgar himself (Christian Gray) and the ghost of his wife Virginia (Erica Bittner) from place to place within the old mansion, experiencing their love, her death from consumption, and what these did to Poe. Along the way, we find ourselves in the middle of several of his haunting and haunted stories and poems; it isn’t a night anyone is likely to forget easily.
The play, an original script adapted by ensemble member David Rice from Poe’s life and works, is the fifth restaging since First Folio originally presented it in 2005. This incarnation is the first time I have managed to catch it, and it is indeed remarkable. Rather than simply retelling Poe’s works, Rice chose to create a show centered on one of the darkest facts about his life: that his mother, then his stepmother, and then his wife all died of consumption. His poems and stories themselves tell us how that affected him: the theme of premature loss of life runs rampant in them. In this play, Poe’s shredded psyche causes him to see his lost Virginia everywhere, and we watch as he does indeed devolve into madness.
The play, as directed by Skyler Schrempp, keeps the viewer off guard from the moment we walk in the door. Viewers are given either a blue or yellow dance card (with Virginia’s lovely poem “Ever Peaceful and Blissful” on the back) but not told what the colors mean. As we are seated (according to color), the assignment still makes little sense. Then, after the first scenes play out, half of the audience goes one way and half the other way, and the significance becomes clear: we will all see the various scenes of the play, but not in the same sequence. From that first moment we are subtly informed that we are in for an unsettling night.
Gray makes a perfect Poe whether narrating his works or portraying both the quieter and happier moments of his life and the dark times. He is intense from those opening moments, manically racing around his study while writing his masterful “The Bells.” And as we move from salon to salon in the mansion, things get stranger. Poe is with us at times, Virginia at others, but much of the time we are simply placed smack dab in the middle of one of Poe’s tales. This effect is strongest in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” a scene played almost entirely in the darkness that surrounds the main character (Mbali Guliwe) in the story. Guliwe’s Prisoner is cast into the completely dark cell only to discover that he is caught between the titular deep chasm and rapidly advancing razor-sharp pendulum, both created entirely by Christopher Kriz’s brilliant sound design. The result is that we are there with him, experiencing everything he does. It’s impressive.
We are also immersed in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Masque of the Red Death” to varying degrees. In “Heart,” we are treated to a virtuoso madman performance by Sam Pearson, who involves audience members as he weaves his demented tale. In “Masque,” we are taken to the castle of Prince Prospero (Gray again) at the fateful hour that the story depicts. And we witness Poe’s “Ligeia” and “Annabelle Lee,” both overtly about his wife, as Poe might have: with visions of Virginia overwriting his words.
The night’s quietest, sweetest moments belong to Bittner, as she hosts us in a large salon to tell the story of Virginia’s marriage to Poe and her slow, agonizing death. It’s an intimate, very real performance, and when Gray walks in we can sense both his deep love and his loss.
First Folio has this material down cold, and Schrempp gets some excellent characterizations from her talented troupe. By the end of the night, even Poe neophytes (do those exist?) will feel as if they know him well. While the Mayslake Hall, which is almost another character in the proceedings, is alive with ghostly sounds and exciting storytelling, it’s well worth a trip out to Oak Brook to visit with the man who was, for a time, America’s preeminent storyteller.
The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story is now playing at First Folio Theatre, 1717 31st St, Oak Brook until Nov 4. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.