'Madness' returns: First Folio remounts Edgar Allan Poe production
First Folio Theatre's David Rice and Alison C. Vesely realized they had an opportunity. They had access to Mayslake Hall, the Tudor Revival-style mansion at Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook, but in the 10 years their company had been in residence, they had failed to take full advantage of it.
"We thought how much fun it would be to come up with a show that allowed us to use the actual physical setting of the mansion," said Rice, who -- with his late wife Vesely -- cofounded First Folio in 1996.
Inspired by their shared affection for Edgar Allan Poe and the mansion's reputation for being haunted, Rice wrote "The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story." The play premiered in 2006. First Folio remounted it six times since then, including the current revival that starts previews Wednesday, Oct. 3, with ensemble member Christian Gray in the titular role.
Pairing Poe poems with short stories and biographical details from the writer's tragedy-filled life, the play is a haunting portrait of a complex man tormented by grief and despair.
"We tried to create a show that would be satisfying to those who really know Poe and his work but would also intrigue and entertain those who had only a passing familiarity with his work," Rice said.
"It's still our most popular show," he added.
Rice estimates that by Nov. 4, when the current revival concludes, 16,000 people will have seen the play. Those who haven't will have to wait five years if they miss this opportunity. That's because the mansion's various rooms, where the action unfolds, are booked until then.
Poe's writing reflected the horror he endured, including being abandoned by his biological father and the deaths of his mother, foster mother, brother and wife, Poe's cousin Virginia Clemm.
Rice hopes theatergoers come away with a better understanding of the writer and how his life inspired his deeply unsettling, psychologically intense works.
"The main thing for Poe is that he was always looking for some familial group because he never really had that," said Gray.
"I believe he was searching for the love that you find with family. He found that with (his wife) Virginia and her family," he said.
This marks the third time Gray, a longtime Poe devotee, is playing the role.
"I'm always drawn to vulnerable and complex people. It's a huge challenge to bring them to life," he said. "But I don't think I'll ever find the full depths of this character."
The richness of Poe's poetry and its macabre tone intrigues Gray, who hopes "Madness" thrills audiences the same way Poe's stories thrill readers.
"That's why you're drawn to Poe. It's psychological," he said. "You can be on the El and get this weird vibe from whoever's sitting across from you. That's what Poe taps into."