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Review: In 'Edgar & Emily,' an undead Poe meets a spunky Dickinson

Correspondent

“Edgar & Emily,” a Joseph McDonough play getting its world premiere at Palm Beach Dramaworks, imagines an impossible meeting between two 19th century literary titans, poet Emily Dickinson and poet-short story writer Edgar Allan Poe.

Why impossible? Because when this meeting takes place in January 1864 — in the reclusive, never-married Dickinson’s bedroom no less — Poe has already been deceased for more than 14 years. Not that actor Gregg Weiner, who plays Poe with a mixture of humor, condescension and quaking terror, lets a little thing like mortality get in the way of creating a vivid character.

The first script from the company’s developmental Dramaworkshop program to reach its main stage, “Edgar & Emily” has been called a “comic fantasia” by artistic director William Hayes, who staged this first full production of the work.

Playing Dickinson opposite Weiner’s Poe is Margery Lowe, an actor who has worked frequently at Dramaworks. The two Carbonell Award-winning performers, both resident artists of the Dramaworkshop, recently finished a run playing siblings in “If I Forget” at GableStage.

In “Edgar & Emily,” Dickinson is winding up the evening in her lovely, second-story bedroom at the family home in Massachusetts.

As the belle of Amherst moves about her candlelit room, with gently falling snow visible through frosted window panes, an alarming thumping sound issues from the stairs leading to the hallway just outside her room. Soon enough, a frantic Poe is rapping at her chamber door, looking for a place to hide from the doppelgänger who has been pursuing him since he was mistakenly buried alive — something he fervently believes — in 1849. Oh, and he arrives with his coffin in tow.

That the masterful writer and literary critic Poe, who married his 13-year-old first cousin, only to become her grieving widower when she (like Poe’s mother) died of tuberculosis at 24, would spend 70 minutes or so shooting the literary breeze with an agoraphobic poet whose vast output would become well known only after her death is a stretch. Then again, so is Poe’s not-so-mortal state.

Thus, it’s best to go with McDonough’s thought-provoking flow as the writers take entertaining jabs at each other and discuss the subject that fascinates them both: death.

Although he weaves bits of biography throughout the script, the playwright focuses on the interaction of his two lively if seemingly disparate characters.

Wearing an almost-white gown by costume designer Brian O’Keefe, a cameo pinned at her neck, her red hair pulled back in Dickinson’s severe style, Lowe portrays a spunky woman who gives as good as she gets, mocking Poe’s conventional rhymes and causing him to get his back up when she calls him a fourth-rate poet.

Weiner’s droll Poe, dressed in a dust-smudged black jacket, striped pants and burgundy vest, a shaggy brown wig enhancing the actor’s resemblance to the author, drops comic putdowns with finesse. Asked by Dickinson if he’ll look at some of her poetry, he replies, “I’ve written about torture. I try not to practice it.” Her enthusiasm at his understated approval of her work leads him to add, “My lack of vomiting shouldn’t be considered an endorsement.”

The Dramaworks design team gives the actors an evocative fantasy world to navigate.

Set designer Michael Amico’s more realistic rendering of Dickinson’s bedroom lies within a framework of black shapes suggesting Poe’s world. O’Keefe’s gown for Lowe sometimes registers as white — Dickinson was known as the lady in white — in Paul Black’s shifting lighting palette. David Black supplies the sounds from which nightmares are forged, as well as elegantly lovely music. The play’s final image, with Poe again on the lam and Dickinson contemplating a more welcoming vision of death, is truly beautiful.

“Edgar & Emily” provides a brief excursion — well-acted, creatively realized — into a wildly imaginative encounter between two revered American writers. Whether McDonough’s fantasia will sprout wings and claim a life beyond the Dramaworks stage is anyone’s guess.

“Edgar & Emily” is running through April 22 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., in West Palm Beach. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday and 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday-Sunday. Tickets cost $75 (students $15, Pay Your Age tickets for theatergoers 18-40). To order, call 561-514-4042 or go to PalmBeachDramaworks.org.

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