By ROBERT HAGELSTEIN
Blogger at lacunaemusing.blogspot.com
March 12, 2018
Imagine if Emily Dickinson, the “poet of Amherst,” had ever met Edgar Allan Poe, the “master of macabre.” Although their lives overlapped somewhat in the 19th century, they never did meet. That is, not until playwright Joseph McDonough brought them together in a world premiere play, “Edgar and Emily,” opening at Palm Beach Dramaworks March 31.
The labyrinthine path to their “meeting” has been paved by McDonough’s fascination by the things they had in common, although the two could not have been more different in the lives they lived. It has also been shaped by Dramaworks’ Dramaworkshop, which accepted the play last year and has been workshopping it ever since in collaboration with the playwright.
Set almost 15 years after Poe’s death, the reclusive Dickinson, an emerging poet, is unexpectedly visited by a desperate and apparently very much alive Poe. They gradually and comically reveal themselves to one another, providing the other with encouragement and courage.
McDonough characterizes the play as an “absurdist humorous drama.” He had written a play before with an Emily Dickinson scholar as a character and became captivated by her work. As he was also familiar with the works by Edgar Allan Poe, he thought “wouldn’t it be fascinating putting them in the same room, given their similarities, particularly their obsession with death?” But he realized that an historical drama (particularly between two people who never met), and on such a theme would be dreary.
“I wanted it to be lighthearted as well as wanting the audience to be informed, probing the public perceptions of both writers,” says McDonough.
By trying to get into the heads of the characters, he let them take the play where it needed to go to achieve his goals. This writing process was further refined by The Dramaworkshop program, where the play underwent staged readings and workshops, with the input of the theatre company and the actors – “all at the top of their game” in McDonough’s view.
Interestingly, although McDonough as a creative artist identifies most closely with Emily Dickinson, he thinks of Edgar Allan Poe as his alter ego. Maybe it was that alter ego which encouraged him to employ a touch of magical realism early on in the play to alert the audience that this is a comedy, not a pedantic historical drama.
Margery Lowe and Gregg Weiner are ideal choices for the roles of Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe. They’ve played opposite one another five times in their acting careers, including “Dividing the Estate” at Dramaworks four years ago in which they played an engaged couple, and most recently just completing a run at GableStage’s “If I Forget,” in which they played siblings.
“Margery and I have an unspoken language when on stage together,” says Weiner. “We trust each other’s rhythms. We have each other’s backs.”
Asking them about playing famous writers, Weiner first thought of the word “showman,” whereas Lowe thought of the word “reclusive” as best defining their roles in McDonough’s play. They agree that both writers were obsessed with death in their distinctive ways. “But that is an ideal setting for a comedy, which this most definitely is,” adds Weiner.
While each feel they made a contribution to the play in the workshopping process (they’ve been with it since doing a reading of the original script at The Dramaworkshop last year) Weiner emphasizes, “but this is definitely McDonough’s work,” while Lowe adds “and best of all, the play is fun and it’s exciting to be part of a world premiere!”
“Although it is a story about two writers who were obsessed with death, it’s a play about living,” says William Hayes, the play’s director and Dramaworks’ producing artistic director. “The takeaway for the audience is she’s afraid of living, he of dying. Living life and attaining joy are defined by those who so choose. And this is what the interaction of the two characters lead to, with the path to that denouement paved by abundant humor. There is so much in this play for the audience to identify with, perhaps the older audience members with Emily Dickinson and the younger with Edgar Allan Poe.”
Hayes continues, “As a ‘two hander’ (a play with two characters), I don’t approach it much differently than a play with a larger cast, particularly with two known exceptionally creative actors such as Margery and Gregg. The theatre’s job is to keep their comic performances visually stimulating. And, with a world premiere, an additional week of rehearsal is needed, the first week devoted to reading and rereading the script for discussion with the playwright and tweaking where necessary.”
Dramaworks correctly bills this play, which runs through April 22, as a “comic fantasia.”
Palm Beach Dramaworks is located in The Don & Ann Brown Theatre at 201 Clematis St. in West Palm Beach. To purchase tickets, call the box office at 514-4020 or go online to palmbeachdramaworks.org.
Pictured above: Margery Lowe as Emily Dickinson and Gregg Weiner as Edgar Allan Poe. The play opens March 31 at Palm Beach Dramaworks in downtown West Palm Beach. Photo by Samantha Mighdoll