Palm Beach Dramaworks, the area’s most literary stage company, usually traffics in classic American plays. This season, however, it has developed and premiered a couple of new works, both centered on unexpected match-ups – and mash-ups – between iconic writers.
In December, Dramaworks unveiled Terry Teachout’s Billy and Me, an exploration of professional jealousy between playwrights William Inge and Tennessee Williams. Now comes the other shoe to drop, Joseph McDonough’s Edgar & Emily, a slight, but diverting tragicomedy pitting Edgar Allan Poe against Emily Dickinson, arguably the two most prominent American poets of the 19th century.
Both plays take considerable dramatic license, but at least Teachout had the advantage of evidence that his characters actually met. McDonough goes further out on a limb, setting his yarn in 1864, some 15 years after Poe’s demise. Or as the writer puckishly puts it, Edgar & Emily is “a story that I think is true even if none of it ever happened.”
The play’s Poe (a sardonic, egotistical Gregg Weiner) does explain how he managed to cheat death – a harrowing rescue from being buried alive that echoes some of his darker prose. But for the sake of McDonough’s loopy premise, just accept that the master of the macabre has been chased by a specter of death ever since. He happens to take refuge one snowy January night in an Amherst bedroom occupied by Dickinson (a morose, but occasionally deadpan funny Margery Lowe).
Although death and dying are at the center of his play, McDonough wants to occasionally startle us with broad humor. To signal that intention at the evening’s beginning, he has Dickinson idly play with a paddle ball, a zany, unexpected image.
It is soon followed by Poe bursting into Dickinson’s room – where she will soon take refuge for the remainder of her life – dragging his coffin with him. She is understandably startled by the intrusion, but when she learns of the stranger’s identity, she cannot wait to press her unpublished verse upon him to gain his opinion of it.
To Poe, she is one more poet wannabe eager for praise from the renowned author of “The Raven.” Both of them hold their own verses in high esteem and McDonough has fun pitting his characters against each other, bickering over who has the greater writing talent.
Still, they – and we – come to realize that these two drastically different souls have much in common, notably a preoccupation with their own demise. He is a boisterous figure and she is an introvert, but at heart, they are kindred spirits. That’s not much to hang an evening of theater on, but Edgar & Emily is a mere 70 intermission-less minutes long, not quite long enough for them to test our patience.
The play is helped considerably by the likeable presence of Lowe and Weiner. Starchy is Dickinson’s default mode, but since Poe happens to carry cognac in his casket, she warms up considerably with a few snifters. If your view of her comes from The Belle of Amherst, you will be nicely surprised as the poetess defers to her daffy side.
Weiner’s Poe is all bull in a china shop, a guaranteed disrupting influence even without the coffin. He is confounded by and condescending to this creature clad in white he has come upon, but over time he comes to see himself in her.
Michael Amico’s scenic design combines naturalism with the symbolic, a very feminine bedroom underneath a proscenium of a raven’s outstretched wingspan. Brian O’Keefe’s period-perfect costumes extend the contrast between the two characters and Davis Thomas’s soundscape effectively suggests the lethal pursuer that is probably in Poe’s imagination. Only Paul Black’s lighting, which makes several abrupt transitions, pulls us out of the mood that director William Hayes musters.
The production ends with an unexpected visual image that I took to suggest Dickinson’s acceptance of death, though that may or may not have been intended. McDonough has created a couple of intriguing characters, but it feels like there is much more to explore between them. At the moment, the best thing about Edgar & Emily is its promising initial premise.
EDGAR & EMILY, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through April 22. $75. 561-514-4042.