Theater review: First Folio expertly examines Edgar Allan Poe's 'Madness' in popular remount

 
 
Updated 10/11/2018 3:44 PM
hello
  • Ensemble member Christian Gray plays Edgar Allan Poe, whose macabre tales reflect his tormented soul in First Folio Theatre's "The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story."

    Ensemble member Christian Gray plays Edgar Allan Poe, whose macabre tales reflect his tormented soul in First Folio Theatre's "The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story." Courtesy of Tom McGrath

  • Joan Nahid, foreground, plays the mysterious Ligeia, who from the grave haunts her husband, Verdon (Christian Gray), background, in First Folio Theatre's "The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story."

    Joan Nahid, foreground, plays the mysterious Ligeia, who from the grave haunts her husband, Verdon (Christian Gray), background, in First Folio Theatre's "The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story." Courtesy of Tom McGrath

  • First Folio Theatre ensemble member Christian Gray stars as the titular character in "The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story."

    First Folio Theatre ensemble member Christian Gray stars as the titular character in "The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story." Courtesy of Tom McGrath

  • Erica Bittner plays Virginia Poe, the wife and obsession of writer Edgar Allan Poe, whose poems and plays First Folio Theatre showcases in the immersive theatrical event "The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story."

    Erica Bittner plays Virginia Poe, the wife and obsession of writer Edgar Allan Poe, whose poems and plays First Folio Theatre showcases in the immersive theatrical event "The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story." Courtesy of Tom McGrath

"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.

Mbali Guliwe plays the prisoner facing death by either the pendulum or the pit in First Folio Theatre's "The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story."
Mbali Guliwe plays the prisoner facing death by either the pendulum or the pit in First Folio Theatre's "The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story." - Courtesy of Tom McGrath

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.

Erica Bittner plays Edgar Allan Poe's beloved wife, Virginia, whose death torments the writer as showcased in "The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story," running through Nov. 4 at Oak Brook Mayslake Peabody Estate.
Erica Bittner plays Edgar Allan Poe's beloved wife, Virginia, whose death torments the writer as showcased in "The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story," running through Nov. 4 at Oak Brook Mayslake Peabody Estate. - Courtesy of Tom McGrath

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 Madman (Sam Pearson) succumbs to the guilt that accompanies his heinous crime in "The Tell-Tale Heart," one of the stories included in First Folio Theatre's "The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story."
The Madman (Sam Pearson) succumbs to the guilt that accompanies his heinous crime in "The Tell-Tale Heart," one of the stories included in First Folio Theatre's "The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story." - Courtesy of Tom McGrath

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.

• • •

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

Tickets: $29-$44

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

Article Comments ()
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.