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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp DC Review
by Rich See
When composer (and actor) Matt Connor came to Eric Schaeffer and asked for some advice about a series of songs he had written, Signature's Artistic Director had no idea what a treat was in store for him. Happily, after bringing Connor's musical talent together with Grace Barnes' book writing ability, the rest of us can see where these intrepid souls have dared to tread.
Connor and Barnes have focused the production on Poe's relationship with the five women who were closest to him. His mother, Elizabeth Poe; his cousin Virginia whom he married when she was thirteen and he twenty-seven; Virginia's mother Maria "Muddy" Clemm; his second wife and childhood sweetheart Elmira Royster; and an "every whore" who represents Poe's attraction to prostitutes.
Using Poe's innate loneliness as a jumping point, Schaeffer and his team have taken Connor and Barnes' inspired work and melded it to a symbolic staging. Thus, the bent, warped trees that spring from the stage bend in upon the cast -- like ribs protecting the heart. The lone doorway, which emits a brilliant white light, represents the salvation of self-love. Black and blue -- the color of bruises -- light the stage. A full moon rising highlights a constant state of night. The raked set slants at an angle to show us Poe's skewed perspective of life.
The costumes are vintage wear with death-like make up highlighting the players. The purple scarf which appears seems to represent the lifeline that his mother is throwing out to him. The use of black paper, black feathers, coffin shaped floor lights and smoke add a note of the nightmarish to the staging.
A broken fence is like a broken dream, while chairs sinking into the floor are seemingly filled with the weight of despair. As hands and arms reach up through the stage grabbing at the author like ghosts of the past, the women hide amongst the dark recesses of the set. Fluttering through Poe's emotions, they inspire but never complete him, nor change his inner nature. Although they frequently tell him that he makes them whole, he cannot make the same declaration back to them and mean it.
It's only his mother, who never seems to be far from his thoughts and remains on stage or in its background the entire play, who finally helps him heal himself by urging him to let go of the pain he has chosen to carry with him throughout his life. Did I mention the play starts at his death and then works back to it? I'm not giving anything away, since the process works well for this song cycle-like musical.
While it's not an entirely perfect piece, for a newly commissioned work, the difficulties are minor. For example the final song, which occurs after the very stirring "Maelström III", is less emotionally climactic than one would like. And the appearance of snow is hard to interpret. I am thinking it represents lightness, freshness and a cracking of Poe's angst-ridden emotions. Additionally, at times the words are hard to catch, since the actors are occasionally singing over top of each other. Also, the decision to not mike the players could pose an issue for those with hearing difficulties, thus they should request a seat close to the stage.
But other than those few details, the entire production flows along a tide of emotion as Poe's self-indulgence of his inner wounded child constantly tries to pull those closest to him into his dark world. Perhaps the reason for his attraction to a child and his marriage to her.
His mother, who provides the voice of sanity from the grave, constantly harkens to him to quit his moping and get on with the art of living. But Poe always looks back at his childhood and laments her early death, blaming her for "leaving him" when he was two years old -- a situation which she surmises by telling him "If I had stayed you would have nothing to write about."
Perhaps the best part of the show is its correlating Poe's writings to events in his life. Thus we see how the creative spark turns the ordinary aspects of living into classic works of fiction.
The cast shines in every respect. Daniel Cooney captures the author's loneliness and inner torture. On stage the entire ninety minutes, his performance in the last part of the show is amazing as he shows us the mental breakdown of the author in "The Raven" and then "Maelström III."
Florence Lacey as Mother is wonderful in her delivery of sharp humor mixed with motherly tenderness. She especially shines on the song "Evening Star."
With the least developed role to play, Channez McQuay as Muddy emerges in the latter half to hit her stride. While Virginia is alive, Muddy is in the background; but after the daughter's death, Ms. McQuay's character is able to develop depth and understanding.
Ironically, the most mature and honest character on stage may be child bride, Virginia Clemm. Lauren Williams' portrayal starts as a school girl who slowly evolves into a young woman. (Virginia and Poe were married for ten years before she died of tuberculosis.) By the time of her death she has outgrown Poe and is needing sunlight more than tragic stories from her husband.
While, as Poe's second wife Elmira, Jacquelyn Piro represents the calmness that Poe is lacking. Her strong vocals create a stage presence that belies the character's sweetness. Her songs, "Fairyland" and "Silence," are quite touching.
And as representative for all the women whom Poe hired to meet his physical and emotional needs, Amy McWilliams' Whore shines on "El Dorado" and "Dreamland."
With the creative staging, mixed with Connor's beautiful score and Barnes' interesting book, Nevermore has the imprint of a much longer and evolved theatrical work. I would highly recommend catching this world premiere now while it's in this intimate setting, since the creators are already in talks to move it to other places. I am looking forward to the cast recording and I hope Mr. Connor is thinking of his next musical!