Christian Gray as Edgar Allan Poe in foreground, two shadowy figures of women in the background
The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe at Oak Park Festival Theatre Credit: Bryan Wakefield

Given the choice of presenting an evening of Edgar Allan Poe’s better known stories and poetry (“The Tell-Tale Heart,” “Annabel Lee,” “The Raven”) and writing a play about the tormented alcoholic author and his obsessive pre- and post-mortem love for his first cousin/child bride Virginia, David Rice did both, weaving together dramatic readings of Poe’s work with fictional vignettes about the poet and his all-too-mortal beloved. The result is a literate, tolerably entertaining bit of theater, made all the more interesting because of Rice’s decision to write the piece as promenade theater, with various scenes staged in various rooms, and short breaks throughout as we tramp from one location to another.

Rice originally wrote the show to be done in the mansion at the Mayslake Peabody Estate (home of Rice’s First Folio Theatre), where it was first produced in 2006 in a production starring Larry Neumann Jr. as Poe, and subsequently done at First Folio in 2007, 2010, 2012, 2015, and 2018. Oak Park Festival Theatre produced the show in the fall of 2019 at a different historic mansion in town, the Cheney Mansion; the current iteration has been revived at the Pleasant Home, a 30-room mansion at the western end of Oak Park done in the Prairie School style.

The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story
Through 11/21: Wed-Fri 8 PM, Sat 1 PM, Sun 3 and 8 PM, Pleasant Home, 217 Home Ave., Oak Park,, $44 (student and senior discounts available).

This year’s outing stars two veterans of previous productions—Christian Gray, who has been playing Poe in various versions of this show since 2012, and Erica Bittner, who was Virgina Poe in both 2018 at First Folio and 2019 at OPFT. Each of them is strong on their own. Gray is particularly good at delivering Poe’s overheated poetry, but together they have a chemistry that powers the whole show.

It helps that Poe’s words are so delicious and that Gray and Bittner are supported by a strong ensemble. Director Bryan Wakefield has found actors who embody Poe’s work forcefully and gracefully, releasing the dark passion in his dark romanticism and walking that perilous line between reveling in Poe’s gothic grotesqueries and descending into indulgent scenery chewing. Will Burdin performs a version of Poe’s well-worn short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” to die for.

The world abounds in dramatic readings of Poe’s chestnuts, but there is nothing like hearing them live to reveal the pungent aroma of death in life in his words.