Poe,by Eric Hill. Directed by Eric Hill. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
David Adkins (l) and company listen to Kate Maguire (c) recite Poe; photo: Christina Riley
David Adkins and J. Andrew Young; photo: Christina Riley
"Poetry...when your name is Poe it comes without trying."
David Adkins is an actor who steps into a role and disappears inside that character. His face, voice, his body language reveal nothing of himself as he brings to the fore the man he has been chosen to portray. In Eric Hill's new play, in its World Premiere Production, about the 19th century poet Edgar Allan Poe, entitled "POE", Adkins brings us up close to the dying poet, damned by society, ridiculed by his peers, adored by millions and lost in the horrors of addiction and affliction.
This is Poe at forty. This is the man who mourns for the few loves of his life: his mother, his stepmother and her daughter his wife. He is alive but already in mourning for himself, the veritable figure of tragedy whose best works of literature and poetry have already mourned for lost loves. He enters a tavern in Baltimore to revisit old times with a close chum only to discover that the man has predeceased him leaving the place, Gunners' Hall, in the hands of a son who only remembers Poe as a dissembler and a ne'er-do-well. For an hour or so Poe rants and raves about art and life and literature and then he disappears only to return bringing death in his wake.
Hill, the author, has imagined all of this for us. Little is truly known about the last days of Edgar Poe and this does allow for as much speculation as possible. Hill's script is literate and lengthy as he gives Poe a chance to rant and rant and rant. The quirkiness of the piece is in the use of language. Bowing to the poetry of the central character, Hill's Poe speaks in an arcane manner using out-dated verbiage to display his unique take on the world around him. The other characters use a plainspeak version of their native tongue, almost mid-twentieth century in tone and while the difference presents Poe in an obscure and melodramatic way it also brings an overly pedantic reality to the people around him.
That is unless they are reciting a work by Poe. Kate Maguire for instance, playing the tavern's cook, Mrs. O'Donnell, recites almost all of Poe's dynamic short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" in a forthright dramatic monologue which is riveting. Madeline Calandrillo, playing the bar girl Maggie, introduces the idea of her recital with glowing remarks which are well illuminated by Maguire's performance which will remain a highlight of her stagework on the Berkshire Theatre stages.
Calandrillo is excellent in her role, a fan whose best hopes are realized when the star himself appears suddenly, having managed to appear mysteriously within a locked room. She plays the glory of admiration to the hilt.
As Connor, the son of the tavern's historic owner, J. Andrew Young takes on the challenge with a pious personality that wears thin, but well as the one-act play progresses. The young man, slightly younger than Edgar Poe, has memories of his father and the poet drunk together and they have left Connor resentful and unpleasant in the extreme. It is the new relationship that the two men forge in the early morning hours that alters the line of the younger man's future. This subtle aspect of Hill's play is one of the finer points of the piece and easy, I suspect, to misunderstand. Poe's flagrant references to "unparticled matter" and its ways of affecting things certainly bring about the changes in Connor that are revealed in the second scene of the play.
Brian E. Plouffe plays the doctor who cannot save a dying man and whose theories of Poe's death are almost too curious a conclusion to the show. Of course, the true circumstances are not known, but the death of Poe on stage in Stockbridge is certainly not the death of the poet in real life. However, drama allows for a bit of fancy and Hill delivers that in spades.
The play is set in a Baltimore tavern designed by Carl Sprague (a familiar set for this theater if you saw "A Lover's Tale" on this stage last month) and it serves the play very well. David Murin's costumes are perfect for the characters and Matthew E. Adelson's lighting design is moody and dark and appropriate. Original music by J. Hagenbuckle provides the right mood and underscore at just the right moments.
As good as some things are in this play and as curious as some other choices seem to be there is one indisputable article here and that is the performance of David Adkins as Edgar Allan Poe. To NOT see him in this role, if you are a fan of good theater or of Poe or of the arts in general, would be a crime against nature. This is a magical conjoining of talents, the sort that comes along rarely. Poe lives for nearly ninety minutes in the Unicorn Theatre through David Adkins talent.
Poe plays at the Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre on Route 7 in Stockbridge, MA through October 26. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-997-4444 or go on line at www.berkshiretheatregroup.org.