"Edgar Allan Poe": Biographical play, like subject, troubled, with flashes of brilliance

"Edgar Allen Poe -- Once Upon a Midnight"
* Peacock Productions
The Mercury Theater
3745 N. Southport Ave., Chicago
(773) 325-1700
* $35.50 weekdays and Sunday evenings; $39.50 Fridays, Saturdays and Sunday matinees
* 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 6 and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 31.

Features Editor

There comes Poe, with his raven, like Barnaby Rudge,
Three fifths of him genius and two fifths sheer fudge.
James Russell Lowell, 1848

Once upon a midnight dreary, there dwelt a writer named Edgar Allan Poe. He lived a hard and troubled life: Orphaned as a young child, he was adopted by a foster father who bequeathed him the name Allan but little else save disdain. He failed at his attempt at a military career. Virtually every woman he cared for -- his mother, his foster mother, his wife -- died of tuberculosis, ``the Red Death.''

As a writer, and as a man, he was thought rather odd ... at best. In his own words, "From childhood's hour I have not been / As others were -- I have not seen / As others saw."

He was prone to perverse behavior and peculiar ideas, stemming maybe from genius, maybe from madness, maybe from D.T.'s. Plagued by depression, alcoholism, poor luck and his "Imp of the Perverse," he had little success while he lived, and he lived and died in severe poverty. Then he was slandered by his literary executor.

Though brilliant, Poe, who died at age 40, never really lived up to his enormous potential.

So, too, it can be said for Peacock Productions' "Edgar Allan Poe -- Once Upon a Midnight," now at the Mercury Theater. The one-man show, written by Paul Day Clemens and Ron Magid, draws heavily on Poe's own works, as well as his life, for inspiration and monologue. John Astin, best known for his role as Gomez Addams in TV's "The Addams Family," is visually a perfect Poe.

The show begins with a dark stage, with a single light glowing at center stage ... abruptly extinguished, it leaves stage and audience in darkness. A caped Astin enters, dramatically lit, declaiming the words of Poe.

The lighting is extremely effective throughout. Lighting designers Todd Hensley and Duane Schuler have done a wonderful job, as has John Boresche, who designed the rear projections that enliven his otherwise dark, sparse set: a desk, a couple of chairs, a stepladder, a rolled carpet -- nothing that distracts from Astin's delivery.

Astin, like the man he portrays, is erratic in this role, however, and sometimes his delivery distracts from his lines. It's hard to tell, however, how much this is the actor's fault and how much is the play's.

Astin, as the ghost of Poe, is at his best in the conversational sections of the play. His timing is brilliant when he delivers the play's humorous lines, such as his quip on Poe's becoming a critic: "It was then that I began to make enemies." And when, with gentle irony, he attempts to refute the writer's unsavory reputation.

These are the best parts of the play, which has much to impart to fans of Poe, details not widely known to those who aren't serious students of the writer.

Yet unlike some other biographical one-man shows, such as "Barrymore" (which Christopher Plummer brought to vibrant life some months ago in an all-too-brief touring date here), those who don't know or don't like the subject may find "Edgar Allan Poe" a little dull, not least because of the many long quotations from Poe's work -- including some that is deservedly obscure. Although they have chosen selections that fit the mood and theme of the play, the authors might have done better by using more of Poe's familiar, popular works and quoting at less length.

Sometimes the quotations work, but they often seem jarring interruptions to the tale of Poe's life. That too, fits the story, but makes this a play that may well read better on paper (where one could skim through the boring bits) than it performs on stage. And the long recitations of Poe's poetry are not helped by Astin's unfortunate tendency to lapse into singsong.

The production may be flawed, but if you are interested in Poe, it is worth sitting through the fudge for the bright spots in this poignant and sometimes comedic look at his troubled life:

"And much of Madness, and more of Sin, / And Horror the soul of the plot.... The angels / All pallid and wan, / Uprising, unveiling, affirm / That the play is the tragedy, 'Man,' / And its hero the Conqueror Worm."