Oak Park Festival Theatre has a unique and seasonally eerie new production running now called The Madness of Edgar Allen Poe: A Love Story. If you cannot think of the fine Festival theatrical troupe without picturing summer Shakespeare at Austin Gardens, Lake and Forest, prepare yourself for a distinct treat. Their new show has been mounted throughout much of Oak Park’s historic Cheney Mansion.
Playwright David Rice has blended portions of Poe’s life story with some of his blood-curdling short stories that continued to haunt Poe after his beloved wife’s early death. Skyler Schrempp directs this thrilling and passionate piece of theater.
Upon arrival at Cheney Mansion, every audience member is given a color-coded ticket. As the play opens, with Christian Gray playing the title role of the tormented writer, haunted by bells, the intensity is virtually cinematic. He seems deranged, yet he feverishly writes with a quill, composing new work. He is still grief-stricken over the death of his young wife, whom he refers to as “Sissy,” still obsessed with her.
The mood is ominous, fast-paced and intense. After the initial scene, audience members are split into two groups according to the colored ticket they hold. They are led into other parts of the house. Everyone eventually sees the same scenes but in different sequential order. It’s fascinating how all this is orchestrated. Many episodes are performed twice before the final scene occurs.
The setting is Baltimore in October 1849, the month in which Poe died at age 40.
Cheney Mansion, constructed in 1913, was originally designed to recreate a sprawling English country home. It works well as a spooky mid-19th-century Baltimore home. The site is compatible with the needs of the script.
Poe, born into an acting family, lost his mother at age 2 when she died of consumption (tuberculosis). At age 27, he married his 13-year-old first cousin. She too died of consumption.
In the second scene my group witnessed, Poe’s wife enjoys a pot of tea by herself as she talks about her relationship with her husband. Erica Bittner is intense and touching as Virginia (Sissy). It’s beneficial to hear her speak of the love they shared. She helps us soften our perhaps hostile contemporary repulsion toward a man marrying a child cousin 14 years younger.
The sad, romantic tale is expanded as the audience members are guided into other portions of the house. Everyone has a seat, but there are stairs to climb. In other locations, we experience versions of Poe tales that particularly haunted him, such as “The Pit and The Pendulum,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” There is a different Poe horror story in each room visited. Some actors in each of the story scenes, or serving as guides, are Kyle Curry, Dave Skavarla, Dina Monk, Joan Nahid, Jillian Patterson, Kevin Tre’Von Patterson, Sarah Rachel Schol and Drew Straub.
The fine lighting design for the many performing spaces is Michael McNamara. Christopher Kriz and Matthew R. Chase created the sound, so important in a haunting show like this.
Bittner and Gray portrayed the Poes in another mounting of this drama several years ago at First Folio, performed much as it is here, in the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook. Schrempp is the director of this production, as she was in that First Folio production.
The Madness of Edgar Allen Poe: A Love Story is an exciting, captivating tale of love, heartbreak, and horror. Though climbing flights of stairs to see the various performances in different sections of the mansion might be challenging for some, it was a unique theater experience I think I will always remember.
Many showings are already sold out. See the performance through Nov. 17, Thursdays and Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 1 p.m.; and Sundays, 3 p.m. There is also a special Halloween performance on Thursday, Oct. 31, at 5 p.m. $35; $28, seniors; $15, students with ID. Tickets/more: 708-300-9396, oakparkfestival.com. Cheney Mansion is located at 220 N. Euclid Ave., Oak Park.