Theater review: First Folio expertly examines Edgar Allan Poe's 'Madness' in popular remount
"The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story" - ★ ★ ★ ½
We first encounter Edgar Allan Poe -- the titular character in First Folio Theatre's seasonal homage -- in a rapturous moment of artistic creation.
Hunched over his desk, his expression agitated, hair falling into his eyes, Christian Gray's frenzied Poe writes furiously, overcome by the mania that animates "The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story," adapted by First Folio executive director David Rice from Poe's stories and poems.
This marks First Folio's sixth production of the combination bio-drama and literary survey offering insight into the man whose life tragedies -- particularly the deaths of loved ones, including his dear wife, Virginia -- profoundly influenced his writing.
The show, whose scenes unfold in various rooms in the Tudor Revival-style mansion at Oak Brook's Mayslake Peabody Estate, premiered in 2006. I've seen it under three different directors with three different actors playing the titular role. The first time I was struck by Poe's overwhelming grief; the second by the profound love between the writer and his much younger wife. But what impressed me about director Skyler Schrempp's intimate, emotional production is how thoroughly it reveals not only madness born of grief and love, but also madness born of obsession, fear and artistic impulse.
The latter is chillingly reflected in "The Pit and the Pendulum" in which Mbali Guliwe's unnamed prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition is confined to a stifling dungeon, precisely evoked by sound designer Christopher Kriz, set designer Kyle Gettelman and lighting designer Michael McNamara.
In near darkness accompanied by the ominous swoosh of the pendulum's blade and the scurrying of rats, a terrified man -- played by the perpetually agitated Guliwe, who recognizes the anticipation of death may be worse than death itself -- awaits his fate.
In a Baltimore garret, a man (Sam Pearson in a suavely pathological performance) becomes obsessed with his elderly neighbor's vulture-like eye and murders him. Later, in the presence of the oblivious constable (Josh Bernaski), he's unmasked by the beating of "The Tell-Tale Heart" only he can hear.
Outside the walls of Prince Prospero's castle in Italy, peasants die from the plague in "The Masque of the Red Death." Inside, insulated from the Red Death, the callous crème de la crème Fortunato (Joel Moses), Luciana (Sarah Rachel Schol) and their unwitting friend Angelo (Bernaski) carouse until an uninvited guest ends their merrymaking.
Besides Poe, the other recurring role is Erica Bittner's delicate Virginia, Poe's cousin who he married when she was 13. Virginia shares stories of their life and of her husband, whose tragic past robbed him of his faith in the future. Their happiness was relatively brief, Virginia died at age 24 from consumption, which also claimed Poe's mother and surrogate mother.
The disease claims several characters in Poe's tales, including the enigmatic Ligeia (Joan Nahid) who on her deathbed insists to her husband, Verdon (Gray), "death is not absolute." After his second wife, Rowena (Bittner), also succumbs, the distraught Verdon echoes Poe's own anguish when he exclaims: "what have I done to deserve this?"
His jacket's frayed hem and lapel suggest Poe's financial struggles, but the greater concern is the unfathomable sadness evident in Gray's haunted expression and his emotionally fraught performance.
The mania that surfaces during Gray's resounding opening recitation of "The Bells" gives way to melancholy in "The Raven," whose stanzas link the scenes. By the final moments, when Gray's broken Poe whispers the elegiac "Anabell Lee," he is a man permanently shrouded in despair.
It's an affecting conclusion to the tautly paced "Madness," which benefits from McNamara's mood-enhancing lighting. Particularly striking is how he gradually bathes the madman's garret in crimson as the scene concludes.
While Schrempp's direction keeps emotions close to the surface, the sincerity of her cast keeps melodrama in check.
Case in point: the single tear that trails down Gray's cheek as he watches his wife recount their love affair. In any other production, that might come across as corny. Here it's wrenching confirmation of insurmountable loss and the madness it evokes.
Note: Limited tickets remain for"The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe." Check firstfolio.org for availability.
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Location: First Folio Theatre, Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook, (630) 986-8067 or firstfolio.org
Showtimes: 8 p.m. Wednesday and Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Thursday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday through Nov. 4
Running time: About 1 hour, 40 minutes; no intermission
Parking: Free parking available on the estate grounds
Rating: Suitable for teens and older; some tales might be too frightening for young or sensitive audience members. Additionally, one scene unfolds in almost complete darkness in an interior room