David Rice’s The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story is a lively, interactive experience at Pleasant Home in Oak Park as conceptualized by Festival Theatre, starring Christian Gray (Edgar Allan Poe/Prospero) and Erica Bittner (Virginia Poe/Ligeia). The play plumbs the mindset of Poe before and after the death of his wife, who died from “consumption” (tuberculosis).
The mansion is a historic site in its own right and the perfect backdrop for a little night Madness.
Throughout the play, a sense of gloom settles on the melancholic writer, wandering from room to room, tackling his superego, oftentimes unknowingly intertwining real life and his written works as he slowly loses his grip on reality. Poe seeing his dead wife everywhere is the biggest clue to the fragility of his psyche.
The play, directed by Bryan Wakefield, also Festival’s managing director, is a remarkably fluid production that allows theater-goers to be participants in the middle of the unfolding, haunting stories. In separate groups, the audience is led around the house every 10-15 minutes to observe Poe in his rooms and Virginia’s ghost in hers.
Untimely loss is the running theme throughout, and how Poe is affected by death is told through the intermingling of long passages from his writings: “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Raven,” “Annabel Lee” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
Gray is outstanding as the unstable author, weaving in and out of quiet sanity to bursts of manic anguish while finishing his poem, “The Bells.” As he falls deeper into the madness, his acting skills are on full display, and he convincingly transforms into a diabolical madman.
Bittner is equally impressive in her ability to be so much less excessively dramatic as she portrays someone dying of a debilitating illness. In her room, she tells the story of their love affair, which began when she was just 13 years old. She died in her mid-20s.
The cast also includes Will Burdin (The Madman), Ian Michael Minh (Fortunato), Dina Monk (Officer/Angelo), Sara Rachel Schol (Luciana), Jillian Patterson (Helena/Rowena), Drew Straub (Soldier/Monk) and Noah Villareal (The Prisoner).
The moving audience is a welcome, refreshing strategy for keeping people enthralled during the entire production. The same strategy was used when Festival previously staged the production in 2019 at Cheney Mansion in Oak Park. The entire cast has returned for this remount. The stage manager is Sarah West, lighting designer is Michael McNamara and costumer designer is Rachel Lambert.
As the first few scenes come to an end, the audience is divided, East and West. Half go one way, half goes another. While everyone sees the same play, the sequence of scenes is different.
For those audience members who are less mobile, large monitors from each room, allows them to follow the progression.
Madness promises to be another sold-out hit for Festival Theatre, and stimulating evening for those able to secure tickets.
Proof of COVID-19 vaccination is required upon arrival by all ticket holders because of the proximity of the interactive experience between audience and cast. Children under 12 are not permitted, and the audience is required to wear masks for the entire performance. The play lasts 90 minutes with no intermission.
“The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story” plays through Nov. 7, Wednesdays through Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 1 p.m.; and Sundays, 3 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $44, $35 seniors, $25 students. Pleasant Home is located at 217 Home Ave., Oak Park (corner of Pleasant and Home).