by Marcus Scott
The moment the lights go down within the intimate 199-seat theater at the New York Theatre Workshop, the audience is dropped within the illuminated mind of a 19th century paranoid schizophrenic. Luckily, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the disturbed intelligence comes from the macabre mind of legendary writer Edgar Allan Poe. Tailor-made for the downtown theater crowd, NYTW “usual suspect” Thaddeus Phillips fraternized with Minneapolis-based musical duo Jeremy Wilhelm and David Wilhelm of Wilhelm Bros. & Co to execute a stunning visual of the twilight days of America’s greatest Romantic-era wordsmith. The result is one of the most striking chromatic experiences in recent memory, with a plot inspired by the footnotes and renderings of the life of one of the most intriguing writers of all-time truncated as if an afterthought.
The story follows the trajectory of Poe (played by Ean Sheehy with twisted nerve precision) in September 1849, as the famed writer travels station to station at the climax of his last lecture tour from Virginia to New York. Red-Eye to Havre de Grace paints a familiar take on Poe: a mad genius and down-on-his-luck tortured artist searching for meaning after losing the love of his life, Virginia Clemm, to tuberculosis and creating what he believed to be his magnum opus, Eureka: A Prose Poem, a dissertation on the cosmos. Named after the city in which Poe was last seen (Havre de Grace is not far from Baltimore, Maryland), found dead with a ticket to New York in his hand and a stranger’s clothes on his body, the story takes liberties as no one knows exactly what occurred in his twilight days. Scraping by with only a few dollars to his name, while en route, Poe suffers a nervous breakdown possibly influenced by a mix of booze and laudanum. His only communication to the outside world is with his aunt, mother-in-law “Muddy,” and his wife-to-be, childhood sweetheart Sarah Elmira Royster—each letter is more disturbing than the last. It’s no wonder, especially since he seems to be haunted by visions of Virginia (played by Alessandra L. Larson, who executes Sophie Bortolussi’s robust choreography with nimble grace).
Over the course of the three-act play, Poe’s downward spiral into despondence and alcohol-fueled delirium operates as a litmus test of sorts to the audience; questioning our own inner demons. Other than that, the bus stops there. There’s almost little string to attach us to the character and the crisis at hand. But that doesn’t mean the audience is flying blind. Steering the ship is Jeremy Wilhelm in the guise of Steve, a park ranger and warden in charge of the Edgar Allan Poe House in Philadelphia, where Poe spent six years crafting his most prolific work. Wilhelm provides dry slacker hilarity and witty observations between set changes and transitions. His voice fits solidly with the score by David Wilhelm (on piano), which blends Gothic lounge jazz art folk and includes bursts of Spanish guitar flair. His impressive bari-tenor rings like a siren, singing passages from letters and stories written by Poe. Don’t worry; the audience is also treated with fan favorites “Annabel Lee,” “El Dorado” and “Ligeia” or the more abstruse, like “The Philosophy of Furniture.” And yes, there’s “The Raven,” arguably his most celebrated work.
The real rock stars of this production are that of director Thaddeus Phillips and lighting designer Drew Billiau. The brilliant ophthalmic prism of stage light mixed with Phillips’ direction and seamless set design—crafted mostly out of versatile, portable tables, chairs and fabrics—are a soupcon for the senses. Perhaps the most entertaining moment of the night included Poe’s rendition of his most memorable poem: Lit by lantern that casts binary shadows on red curtains behind him, Poe builds into a catastrophic crescendo as he laments his lost love and the uncertain death clock that ticks for all of us. This is also where character actor and star Ean Sheehy shines as his nervous energy slides into an erratic, volatile force in a stretch of a few minutes; his gaunt face and lean body evoking the heart-wrenching vulnerability of a man at the end of his rope.
Having an existential crisis? Red-Eye to Havre de Grace is beautiful nightmare for the weary kind.
Red-Eye to Havre de Grace
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4 Street (between Second Avenue & Bowery)
Through June 1
Marcus Scott, an MFA graduate of NYU Tisch, is a playwright, musical theater writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Elle, Out, Essence, Uptown, Trace, Giant, Hello Beautiful and Edge Media Network.