Once upon a Sunday dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Will this latest Poe play rate high or very poor?
Will I nod, nearly napping, or will my synapses be a-snapping
As I watch Poe’s tortured writhing, writhing at death’s door?
“’Tis some play,” I muttered, “Tapping pain and horror at the core—
Only this, I say—encore!
The mystery surrounding Edgar Allan Poe’s last days still tantalize us 163 years after the writer and visionary was found lying in front of a derelict waterfront Baltimore saloon, disoriented and delirious and wearing someone else’s clothes. He died October 7, 1849 in what came to be known as Church Home Hospital and was buried at downtown Baltimore’s Westminster Church. Every year from 1947 to 2009, an anonymous stranger known as “The Poe Toaster” left a partially empty bottle of cognac and three roses at the grave on Poe’s birthday, January 18th.
Why did Poe never make it from Richmond to New York? What was he doing in Baltimore—was he ill or on a drunken binge? What were his last days like—some theories have him and other sots being rounded up and taken from polling place to polling place to vote in fixed elections.
Stephen Thorne’s atmospheric and emotionally wrought play The Completely Fictional—and Utterly True—Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe delves into the unknown and unknowable final hours of Poe’s life as he lay on a hospital bed, feverish and utterly alone as death comes rapping at his chamber door.
Combining biographical material with excerpts from his most famous tales and poems, as well as other writings, … Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allen Poe takes us into the eternal dark night of the soul of a man possessed—possessed by his visions, his imagination, his doomed love for the teenaged Virginia Clemm, and his incessant poverty.
Director Curt Columbus and scenic designer Eugene Lee set the spooky tone from the start, wrapping the Head Theatre in muslin burlap cloth that turns the space into a magic lantern show or a tent show that Poe himself may have enjoyed in the mid 1800s. Sound designer Zachary Williamson provides a sinister symphony of moans, creaks and other eerie sound effects.
The stage resembles a funeral bier as the actors mount the stairs to encounter Edgar Allan Poe (Bruce Randolph Nelson), thrashing on the bed and refusing to go gently into that good night. He takes us and the dismissive medical staff on a tour of his fever brain as he roots through the wretchedness of his life—a journey rendered by Mr. Thorne in black velvety prose as hectic and stylized as that used by Poe.
“Death,” he says. “We approach its gates in dreams” and the first concerns a nurse who morphs into French scientist Valdemar (the impeccable Libya Pugh), a mesmerist from one of Poe’s science fiction stories . She recounts a spine-tingling tale of putting a man, at the cusp of death, into a trance, where he remained hovering between two states of being until he is awakened and quickly vanished in a mist of smoke reeking of the grave.
The mother he scarcely knew—she died when he was 3—Eliza (Naomi Jacobson, potent and defined in this and a variety of roles) becomes a shrouded, silent vision of beauty and longing as she visits her son on his deathbed. Like a deranged version of A Christmas Carol, Poe is also visited by other ghosts from his past—his thundering and scathing uncle John Allan (Jimmy Kieffer) and the fragile, tragically eager to please Virginia Clemm (Caroline Kaplan), who resembles a blood-splattered Ophelia when she comes, singing, to haunt her husband.
The Completely Fictional — and Utterly True — Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe
Closes November 25, 2012
700 North Calvert Street
Baltimore, MD 21202
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $15 – $59
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Perhaps the most shattering confrontation is from his younger self (Charlie Thurston, creating a vigorous, arresting portrait of the young poet), first seen as a man about town full of spirit and woozy on words as he spellbinds a society gathering with his recitation of “The Raven.” Young Poe believes in the divine transformational qualities of poetry and love; Old Poe sees nothing but a life wasted in pain and need and horror. In a demonic stroke worthy of one of his characters, Poe kills off his younger self and then begs forgiveness—“The fever of living is conquered at last.”
The highly colored atmosphere struck by this play is a shivery delight, yet lighter moments are scattered here and there, such as Poe’s meandering discourses with Charles Dickens (Mr. Kieffer, as generous of mind and heart as the author as he is miserly as John Allan), touching on their disdain for critics and calling each other out on lapses of logic in their writings.
Mr. Nelson, with his defined classic diction and noble bearing, seems to have time-traveled to capture the essence of Edgar Allan Poe—a man of restless mind and infinite mystery.
In Mr. Nelson’s gripping portrayal, he seems better acquainted with Death than with himself. Suffering and the beckoning grave were Poe’s constant companions in life, goading his ungodly visions and giving him a shadowy taste of Hell to shock his still-beating heart.
The Completely Fictional—and Utterly True—Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe. By Stephen Thorne. Directed by Curt Columbus.Featuring Bruce Nelson, Jimmy Kieffer, Kenneth Lee, Libya Pugh, Erick Pinnick, Charlie Thurston, Caroline Kaplan and Naomi Jacobson. Produced by CenterStage. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.