DESCENT INTO THE MAELSTROM: AN EVENING WITH EDGAR ALLAN POE, Metamorphosis Theatre, at Live Bait Theater. It would be any actor’s nightmare. On opening night of his one-man show, Page Hearn came on as Edgar Allan Poe–minus the crucial wig. With what dignity he could muster, Hearn turned backstage to don Poe’s raven locks, only to be mocked on his return by a claque of howling first-night yahoos. It would be righteous to say that over the remaining 80 minutes Hearn overcame this false start, offering a Poe so awesomely real we suspended disbelief in earnest. But though Descent Into the Maelstrom is intense and intimate in Shannon Sabel’s dogged staging, Hearn offers no new twists on Poe’s legend, and his limited range takes a cumulative toll.

Here’s one more poet-martyr haunted by the “imp of the perverse.” An alcoholic drowning in self-pity, Poe lashes out at critics who demand morals to his tales, tries to deny his lust for fame, and tweaks us with the “bad taste” of the necrophiliac thriller Berenice. Hearn regales us with a pointedly priggish recitation of “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” Poe’s overwritten attempt at gallows humor, and with a reading of The Raven that, for all its rhapsodizing, can’t disguise the poem’s jog-trot doggerel. (Less artfully declaimed, Annabel Lee fares better.)

Poe’s confessionals are not their own excuse: his self-extenuation takes on power only when seen as the effort of a writer with a well-established literary persona to avoid the truth. Hearn at his best peels the pose from the person, offering rare moments of insight that show how much more complex Descent Into the Maelstrom could have been.