This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Edgar Allan Poe dedicated his final great work, a “prose poem” called “Eureka,” to “those who feel rather than to those who think—to the dreamers and those who put faith in dreams as in the only realities.” Such readers, and theatergoers, will find much to appreciate in a new musical play that depicts the final days of Poe’s life as a feverish dream-like sequence of railway journeys, including the one that provides the work’s title, a “Red-Eye to Havre de Grace.”
As directed by Thaddeus Phillips, the light and dark elements of a grim subject are balanced well in “Red-Eye.” Unflinching in its portrayal of Poe’s torments, which included addiction, poverty, and illness, the production has a streak of mordant, if occasionally goofy, humor that enlivens without trivializing.
This drily comic tone is set at the start, with the appearance of an earnest-looking Jeremy Wilhelm, presenting himself as a National Park Service Ranger visiting New York for the weekend from Philadelphia, where he works at the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site. Thanking the play’s producers for an opportunity to introduce the work, he offers a few biographical tidbits on Poe and even the address of the museum’s web site.
As the play progresses this “Ranger Steve” updates the audience on Poe’s doings, offers jokey asides and personal anecdotes, and acts as railway conductor and hotel desk clerk. He also sings songs, with music played by David Wilhelm, with lyrics that range from Poe’s poetry to strings of mundane dialogue from the play.
One of the finest moments in the play, in fact, comes as Poe fruitlessly rings the bell on the desk of a Philadelphia hotel while waiting for a clerk to arrive. Meanwhile Ranger Steve sings the opening stanza of Poe’s poem “The Bells”:
“Hear the sledges with the bells,
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!”
There is precious little merriment in the story of “Red-Eye,” based as it is on what little is known about Poe’s final days. The hapless writer, played with a frail nobility by Ean Sheehy, attempts to travel from Virginia to New York to visit his mother-in-law in the fall of 1849, but never makes it. Instead Poe undergoes a series of stops, starts, and unexplained detours, often accompanied by ruminations, or perhaps hallucinations, about his life and past.
Most prominent among these disruptive visions is the ghost of his dead wife Virginia, an acrobatic phantom played with wordless grace by Alessandra L. Larson. Poe’s wife torments him, stealing his luggage, making him miss trains, tearing up his manuscripts, and even trying to drag him down into the underworld. But “Red-Eye” also presents Virginia as the source for much of Poe’s poetic inspiration, including the famous Lenore.
A critical moment arrives when Poe gives a lecture at the Philadelphia Literary Society. He intends to read from his new work “Eureka,” a heavy tome on cosmology and the nature of being. “I design to speak of the Physical, Metaphysical and Mathematical,” Poe explains, “of the Material and Spiritual Universe:—of its Essence, its Origin, its Creation, its Present Condition and its Destiny.” However, this proves too ponderous for the Philadelphia Literary Society; he is asked instead to read “The Raven.”
Much, perhaps too much, is made of this dilemma between popular and difficult culture in “Red Eye.” After all, it is hard to imagine a railway conductor asking Poe to recite “The Raven,” as opposed to some more challenging work, as the play drolly depicts in an earlier scene. But it does serve to fairly encapsulate the very real trouble Poe had making ends meet as a Man of Letters in the uncongenial creative marketplace of antebellum America.
The final word in this fascinating piece of theater goes to the October 9, 1849 edition of Baltimore Sun, whose article reporting Poe’s death at age 38 is projected in supertitles above the stage. News of the great writer’s demise, The Sun aptly reported, “will cause poignant regret among all who admire genius, and have sympathy for the frailties all too often attending it.” It is the achievement of “Red-Eye to Havre de Grace” to so artfully delineate these two sides of Poe’s character, the genius and the frailty.
“Red-Eye to Havre de Grace,” through June 1 at New York Theater Workshop, 79 E. 4th Street, New York, NY; 212-279-4200, nytw.org.