On a snowy evening in 1864 the poet laureate of death, Emily Dickinson, is visited by the master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe in a world premiere play, Joseph McDonough’s Edgar and Emily at Palm Beach Dramaworks. And indeed the play is shaped around the main theme of many of their poems (or stories): death (and its corollary, what it means to live), Emily taking a more transcendental view and Poe the ghoulish.
Although this may seem initially distressing, this delicate but insightful play is a work of art. Its universal truths lie between comedy and melancholy. Throughout the play there are pratfalls or physical comedic elements to give it an absurdist twist, giving the audience permission to laugh, even though the characters are two well known poets and the subject matter is one we all generally try to avoid thinking about.
Its brevity (one act packed into 1-1/4 hours) belies its profundity. It is like a Dickinson poem, a meaningful deliberation of what it means to live and die laid bare in but a few lines. I kept on thinking of one of my favorite Dickinson poems “I died for beauty”* which has the phrase “as kinsmen met a night.” In many respects, Dickinson and Poe are kinsmen. Words intensely mattered to them, and ultimately Edgar and Emily led us there.
Those absurdist elements allow this unlikely meeting to suddenly occur fifteen years after Poe’s death. But he is very much alive, stumbling into Dickinson’s universe, her bedroom in her parent’s house in Amherst. But wait, what is it he drags around with him? It’s his coffin! Naturally Emily is indignant at this man visiting her in her room, claiming to be Edgar Allan Poe, and how can this be so many years after his death? Easy explanation, after being buried alive he was miraculously rescued by a woman in white, perhaps an angel (ironically, Dickinson is normally attired in white), with the condition he take his coffin wherever he goes. Unfortunately, he is being chased by his doppelganger who wants to make his rigor mortis permanent.
The play is a beautiful piece of writing, smoothly flowing from comedy, to poetry to expectation of flight, to deep philosophical discussions of what it means to live with eternity before birth and after death. They reveal themselves to one another and in the process both are changed. The play ultimately leads to Poe suggesting that he and Emily go out into the world together. Her hesitation, whether she could bring her words, creates as much dramatic tension as the ominous voice of his pursuer crying out, “Poe!”
When Gregg Weiner as Edgar Allan Poe barges into Dickinson’s bedroom, he is agitated and in great fear that he’s being followed. He is totally indifferent to the woman in the room. When he tells her who he is, laughter erupts as he ends up defending his own work. The tables soon turn and he expresses a cynical dismissiveness about her claims of being a poet as well. Weiner’s nuanced performance creates an aura of unpredictability. His gift for comedic sarcasm is much in evidence, such as his exchange with Emily when he first reads one of her poems: “I have survived poetry that is considerably more nauseating than yours” which Emily takes as a compliment, Edgar going on to say “In fact, I will admit….I detect in your poetics, a concise resignation to morbidity that I personally find exhilarating.”
It is a joy to watch Weiner dial up those comedic elements while at the same time expressing his terrified awe surrounding the mysteries of life, his fear of death, and his struggle to resolve his present dilemma. Here he has the help of Emily.
Margery Lowe is the veteran of fifteen appearances on the Dramaworks stage. Her versatility as an actress shines in the part of Emily Dickinson, with shades of some zaniness juxtaposed to the gravitas of the character of Emily Dickinson. Lowe’s Dickinson ranges from being an uncertain, sheltered woman, entirely inexperienced in the ways of the world, unlike Poe, to being a poet of unmatched greatness, her inner world immeasurable. And if you’re looking for verisimilitude, it also helps that Lowe is about the size of Dickinson and with similar hair coloring. Another doppelganger!
Lowe exhibits all the emotions from bewilderment, to fear, to being dismissive of Poe’s work such as The Raven (“You rhymed ‘lattice’ with ‘thereat is’? It’s no wonder someone’s trying to kill you”). She’s coy about having Poe read some of her poems, and at last amazingly tempted to leave her universe (but asking plaintively “Will I be safe from the enormity of living?”). Lowe announces her decision as a central truth of Dickinson’s art: “I am the queen of infinite space here in my room ….I fear the rest of the world might prove tiny.” It’s a bravo performance to pull all of this off, particularly staying grounded in comedy of which Lowe is a master such as when she breathlessly says to Edgar, “You praised my morbidity! I am so happy!”
Avoiding spoilers, the play inexorably moves to a conclusion shaped by the two characters, one most audiences will find gratifying, even breathtaking, the climax eliciting an audible gasp from the audience, a touch of magical realism, enhanced by lighting and color.
Both must live their lives, for whatever the duration. For all of us, “Living is shockingly brief.” And for Poe and Dickinson, in particular, “The words are the only living, lasting things we have.” Since Lowe and Weiner have been on the stage opposite one another several times before, their chemistry has been honed to perfection.
PBD Producing Artistic Director William Hayes directs the play and has been involved since its gestation, purposely picking local actors, Margery Lowe and Gregg Weiner to go with him and the playwright on the journey from the Dramaworkshop to the Main Stage. He wisely concentrates on the comedic elements of the play, making sure the jokes and quirky dialogue are highlighted. Comedy is always an audience pleaser while the dark drama of the play, the tug of war between living and dying, is always disturbing but should stimulate mindful conversation. It is life’s one unconditional.
Hayes also relies heavily on his technical crew to bring the play to fruition. Scenic design by Michael Amico is simply stunning, while realistically depicting what could pass as Emily Dickinson’s 19th century bedroom, but symbolically casting that room through time and space, enveloping it in the wild world of Edgar Allan Poe. So, like the play, there are unconventional elements.
Lighting design by Paul Black is particularly critical to the play. Here is a room supposedly lit by candles. As they are extinguished or lit, lighting has to gradually anticipate each action, it being jarring to just turn the spots on and off. It all comes across so naturally, as does the shift from light to darkness during the more ominous moments in the play. Watch the lighting at the very beginning as Emily stands at her window, the snow falling, lit like a Rembrandt portrait. Breathtaking.
Usually sound is merely to establish mood, but here sound is more integral to the action. Sound design by David Thomas heightens the suspenseful moments, the storm raging outside, the wind whirling when the window is blown open, the banging of the coffin as it is dragged up the stairs. There is the terrifying crying out of Poe’s doppelganger, “Poe, Poe, Poe!” And here and there we hear a musical interlude, particularly at the beginning, classical violin and piano to (falsely) establish just another calm night in the life of Emily Dickinson. When Poe tells his tale of being rescued from the coffin, the sound effects of the story are like those used in movies, unusual on stage, but eerily appropriate for this production.
The one technical element which has little room for departure from reality is the magnificent costumes by Brian O’Keefe. Emily is known for being a “lady in white” especially later in life, so O’Keefe complies with a beautiful costume, ostensibly white under the lights but actually a shade of grey, with some gold thread to counteract the grey. The dress is slightly ethereal, as is her poetry. Poe meanwhile, known to be usually in black, is indeed dressed in a dark jacket, but with a ruby waistcoat and pinstripe pants, depicting his once outrageously profligate and debauched lifestyle.
As Emily says, “Words endure, Mr. Poe. They endure.” And so are those of playwright Joseph McDonough, who has already been commissioned for a new play during Dramaworks’ 2019 season. Edgar and Emily is sure to provide gratification as well as enlightenment to those who are open to the experience of an absurdist drama about two of our most famous poets.
*Poem number 449 in Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems
I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.
He questioned softly why I failed?
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth,—the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said.
And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.
“I cannot tell how Eternity seems. It sweeps around me like a sea… Thank you for remembering me. Remembrance — mighty word” -- Emily Dickinson
Photographs of Margery Lowe as Emily Dickinson and Gregg Weiner as Edgar Allan Poe are by Samantha Mighdoll