Some 163 years ago this month, Edgar Allan Poe died at age 40, though the cause of his premature death remains as shrouded in mystery as his famous tales. The theories floated have encompassed everything from alcoholism to rabies. But "The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story" suggests that the cause was a broken heart.
In David Rice's adaptation of Poe stories, poems and biographical details, which is enjoying its fourth seasonal outing since 2006 with First Folio Theatre in the suitably gloomy neo-Tudor mansion of coal baron Francis Peabody, the Poe we meet is torn asunder by a cascading series of losses. Ask not for whom "The Bells" (the Poe poem with which the evening begins) toll — they toll for him and his loved ones, including his mother, foster mother and, most famously, his young cousin and child bride, Virginia.
Christian Gray's Poe has a more manic edge than that of John Sanders, who played the role two years ago with a slightly reserved, sardonic manner. Gray's interpretation flirts with hysteria, but it also conjures forth the raw terror of losing everything that he loves, and there are moments when Gray's feverish eyes, brimming with tears, bore through the audience, asking questions about the caprices of fate that none can answer.
"It was fear that made Eddie famous," observes Diane Mair's Virginia, who, despite her youth and her wasting illness, radiates the kind of earthy good sense that her high-flying husband apparently needed.
The audience, divided into two groups for this ambulatory presentation (deftly directed by Michael Goldberg, for whom impeccable timing had to be a foremost concern) moves upstairs and downstairs in the mansion. Upstairs is the realm of terror; it is here that Michael Holding holds forth as the tormented-by-guilt narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" and the desperate prisoner in "The Pit and the Pendulum," with subtle but eerie sound effects by Christopher Kriz serving as supporting characters.
Downstairs, we spend time with Virginia, whose own poetic tribute to "Eddie" is printed on our souvenir "dance card" for the evening, and her literary doppelganger, "Ligeia," Poe's tale about a dead wife whose spirit seemingly inhabits her equally doomed successor. The latter segment, presented in the estate's magisterial chapel, kicks off with Poe's reminiscences about his mother, an actress famed for her death scenes.
Of course, she died in real life before he was 3, so we're left with the question of whether he invented these stories about her and about Virginia as a way of keeping them alive. When the audience comes back together as one for "The Masque of the Red Death" in the paneled library, Poe's sad life and singular literary voice are also reunited. The Peabody mansion may house its own ghosts, but this intelligent journey through his work suggests that, for Poe, no place on Earth was as haunted as the human memory.
When: Through Nov. 4
Where: First Folio Theatre at Mayslake Peabody Estate, 31st Street and Illinois Highway 83, Oak Brook
Running time: 1 hours, 50 minutes
Tickets: $30-$37 at 630-986-8067 or firstfolio.orgCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times