By David Rice
At: First Folio Theatre, Mayslake Hall, Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook. Tickets: firstfolio.org; $34 - $44. Runs through: Nov. 4
Shadows tell stories that eyewitness accounts cannot; they mimic and follow one's every move. This fall, theatergoers can enter the shadows for an eye-witness, up-close account of Edgar Allan Poe's life in First Folio Theatre's production of The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story.
The location, Mayslake Hall on the grounds of the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook, lends itself for exploring the darkness and the creativity of one of America's most talented writers.
David Rice's adaptation of Poe's life and works takes theatergoers through six different scenes, moving them through six locations inside the looming mansion. Under Skyler Schrempp's direction, the audience feels as if it has stepped not only inside the mind of the writer, but also into the threadwork of his literary works as they are being pieced together one agonizing thought after another.
Wear comfortable shoes and travel lightly, as the ambulatory production involves a little walking and stair-climbing. You'll be in close quarters and darkness with both the audience and the actors.
The story starts inside the bedroom where "The Tell-Tale Heart" unfolds and the Madman ( Sam Pearson ) tells of his mania and obsession with the "pale blue vulture eye." He confesses his horrible deed mere inches from theatergoers; be prepared for a jump-out-of-your-seat moment.
Poe ( a convincing Christian Gray ) paces, runs and writes "The Bells" in all his madness, papers askew, eyes wild, passionate, dreadful and furious. Outside, the wind whistles and eerily whips around the home. Gray embodies Poe fully. Each tear seems marked with agony and despair. The agony is over the curse Poe felt befell him as he lost loved ones first his mother, later his wife - to tuberculosis.
Behind the macabre is a love story about Poe's marriage to first-cousin Virginia Eliza Clemm ( Erica Bittner ), who he we when she was 13. Her presence is all-pervasive in his writings, which bring her fragile life and tragic death into frame. Bittner's Virginia is the portrait of innocence, her own life a sacrifice and gift to the troubled writer. Rice's production brings Poe aficionados into his life by allowing them to step inside the parlor room where Virginia sips tea and speaks directly to her guests.
She was his biggest supporter, his "sissy" ( his favored term of endearment for her ), and fuel for his creativity.
The depth of Poe's despair is measurable by the layers found in his writing. His imagination unwound itself and wrapped him tightly inside. Perhaps that is why he says in Eleonora, "Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night."
A stroll through this mansion with Poe and his Virginia is one way to dream with eyes wide open, as shadows amble near.