Through Wednesday, Oct. 31
Sonorous Road Theatre, Raleigh
If you get a little thrill from reading other people’s mail, regard the magnified version of a letter from August 1848 posted outside Sonorous Road Theatre. In a none-too-steady hand, a woman writes for help from a fellow spiritualist. Her colleague is slipping into grief-induced madness after the death of his wife. The woman writes that she plans to mesmerize him, opening a psychic portal for her correspondent to enter his nightmares. “Explore … experience as much as you can. Your human touch, your presence alone should help restore some sanity—some humanity,” she writes.
More than a minor footnote in literary history, the letter’s author is Sarah Helen Whitman. The man she’s writing about is Edgar Allan Poe.
The premise alone of The Strange City of Edgar Allan Poe reveals that cowriters and directors Christian O’Neal and Michelle Murray Wells, the artistic director of Sonorous Road, have done a bit of digging into the last two years of Poe’s dark life. After his young wife, Virginia, died from tuberculosis in 1847, Poe became unstable, falling deeper into the depression and alcoholism he had fought for years.
O’Neal and Murray cast those attending this intriguing immersive-theater work as psychic explorers who enter the fractured consciousness of the macabre poet and writer—the strange city of the title. In doing so, the imaginative production raises the stakes from the company’s 2017 Halloween show, House of the Fury. With no guide to lead us through the maze-like series of rooms and corridors after the first chamber—a writer’s office, violently smashed beyond repair—we’re left to encounter characters in fragments from Poe’s stories, including Clare Vestal’s unstable narrator from “The Tell-Tale Heart” and Douglas Kapp and Lia Fitzgerald’s melodramatic King and Queen Pest from “The Masque of the Red Death.” Michael Bacigalupo does uncanny work as a Hop-Frog who seems an exhausted, bewildered, thinly masked proxy for what remains of the embattled Poe. These characters increasingly overlap and encounter people from Poe’s life, including Elena Mulligan’s dead but still soulful Virginia. It’s disappointing when isolated cast members clearly don’t rise to the level of the above-mentioned actors.
In Strange City’s jigsaw script, characters unite as they struggle to break behavior patterns as deeply embedded as Poe’s haunting verses. A prologue confirms the author’s fate when a love from beyond the grave ultimately proves healthier than the ones on this side of it.