“Nevermore” is a hauntingly beautiful work that posits that without the shipwreck (both a physical and emotional metaphor in this production) of his life, Edgar Allan Poe’s work could not have had the fever-dream, mystery-shrouded and doomed quality it had. This is both an elegiac ode to his work and a thank you to the women who inspired and tended him.
The roles are beautifully sung, and the score exquisitely directed by Jenny Cartney…
The story starts when Poe is near the end of his life and reflecting back on the women he has known—his mother, Muddy, Virginia, Elmira and the Whore. As he lies on a Baltimore street, drifting in and out of consciousness, his mind travels back to various periods where we meet these women and come to understand, perhaps, what they meant to him.
One of the beauties of this work is that 14 of the 15 songs are his poems, set to music, as well as other lyrics interspersed. Composed by Matt Connor, with the book by Grace Barnes, the work was originally premiered at Signature Theatre in Arlington in 2006 and has played at various venues since. It has been somewhat reimagined for this staging; I saw the original staging at Signature, and it left me awed, but this staging is more mature and nuanced and haunting.
As Poe, Stephen Gregory Smith is tortured and petulant and self-indulgent and in so much pain that it’s visceral. This is a bedrock performance in his channeling of both Poe’s despair and the mystical and fearsome body of work he left.
Now, onto the women. We meet his tart-tongued and somewhat bemused mother, Elizabeth (Katherine Riddle), who died when Poe was not yet three. Every time Poe flings the accusation at her that she abandoned him, she reminds him that she died. Her song, “Evening Star,” is a paean to his loss and where he seeks her—“of the brighter, cold moon.” Riddle provides the baseline loss from which he never recovered and her performance is both sad for him and a little impatient that he can’t/won’t move on.
Erin Granfield portrays Elmira, the friend of his childhood whose father was aghast at the thought of her having a relationship with the young Edgar Allan Poe. She knew him before he grew more despondent and dissolute in life, and when they meet again after she is widowed, she longs to save him. There is a force of desperation in her songs and you feel the joy as she meets him again in adulthood and the slowly dawning realization that she cannot be his refuge.
Muddy (Jennifer Lyons Pagnard), his aunt and the mother of his wife, Virginia, is a storm of powerlessness before him. She cannot but despair at the growing love between her 13-year-old daughter and the 25-year-old Edgar, and when forced to go live with him after she loses her income, she gives in to the marriage. Her recognition of the wrongness of their relationship is met by the obsession of his feelings for Virginia; it is a complex role, and in some ways, the most heartbreaking and you feel every moment of her grief. When she roundly rejects him, it is sharp and earned.
As his 13-year-old bride, Virginia, Sarah Hurley is a whirling dervish of charm and innocent knowingness. When she so coyly asks her mother why a man and a woman sleeping in the same bed is such as off-limits topic you feel the oppressiveness of the Victorian era. Her unabashed adoration of Edgar and his infatuation give way to his weariness of those same childlike charms. In turn, as she faces her death from tuberculosis at 24, she grows to face her mortality and holds it before him. It’s a bravura performance.
The Whore, Mary Kate Brouillet, is a distillation of all the women he kept company within brothels and elsewhere. In “El Dorado” and “Dreamland,” she gives glorious voice to whatever chimera he was seeking.
The roles are beautifully sung, and the score exquisitely directed by Jenny Cartney, who also music directed the original production at Signature. Margie Jervis is responsible for Scenic, Prop and Costume Design, and this is a most effective staging. The costumes, in particular, capture the essence of each character’s place in his life.
This is an atmospheric production; I do have one caveat that at times the lighting was a little too dim. It is a lovely, near-Gothic production that makes canny use of the very intimate playing space at Creative Cauldron. Matt Connor, the composer, also directed, and he infuses the atmosphere with the dark void that seemed at the center of Poe’s being.
Advisory: Implied sexual situations.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
“Nevermore” runs from October 4 – 28, 2018, at Creative Cauldron, Falls Church, VA. For more information, please click here.