Folks in the DC/VA area have a dwindling opportunity for a special treat: a musical focused entirely on Edgar Allen Poe and the women in his life. It should not be missed.
The book is by Grace Barnes, with a score from Matt Conner— and the lyrics are all taken from Poe's work. Their rendition of The Raven alone is worth the price of admission. It is electrifying.
The music and the mood of the piece are everything you'd expect from a biopic of Edgar Allen Poe. Moody, dark, haunting. Just like his work, it's not always pleasant to behold... but you can't tear yourself away.
The show is presentational, not representational: the famously troubled writer bounces back and forth through moments of his life, from boyhood on through to his last days. The set is one room and several, simultaneously. It's a rundown hotel where Poe's staying the night. It's his writing room. It's the bedroom of his young bride, Virginia.
There's little in the way of transition, you just have to keep up. Poe has little to no control over it himself, and the only stars he has to navigate by are the women who swept through his life.
There's his mother (Mary Payne), who died before he was old enough to really remember her. As a result, the grown-up Poe is haunted not by her memory, but by his self-appointed concept of what she would have been like. Payne brings a clever, sardonic air to the role, sashaying through the poet's mind with great impact and little sympathy.
There's his first and last love, Elmira (Kathleen McCormack), a next-door neighbor when they both were children, who finds him at the opposite end of his life with curious symmetry. Kathleen has warmth, tempered with experience and loss. As the child, she's energetic and romantic. As the adult, she offers Poe a solace grounded in maturity.
Barbara Lawson plays Virginia, Edgar's naïve young sweetheart. Lawson brings sweetness and fragility to the role— enraptured with his stories, and devoted to him completely. The show pulls no punches: it doesn't glorify or hide the fact that Poe's feelings for Virginia are inappropriate, and quite troubling to the girl's mother (and Poe's aunt).
Kristen Jepperson has possibly the most challenging role, playing the woman torn between wanting her loved ones to be happy, and protecting them from their own destructive impulses. They can't have both, and neither can she. Jepperson bares her heart on that stage, and it is engrossing to behold.
And then there is the Whore, played by Karissa Swanigan. Whether or not she's entirely real is a bit of a mystery. She could just be a figment of Poe's failing mind, there to offer him some guidance and a bit of illicit comfort as he continues to slip away. She tells him flatly, "I can be whoever you want me to be", which rather makes her the perfect companion for his troubled journey down memory lane. Swanigan is at times warm, hot, nurturing, playful, and dismissive. There's also a grim aspect to her role, and she doesn't shirk from it.
Of course, all these separate and distinct performances have to be held together by the center: That privilege goes to Christopher Shaw, playing Edgar Allen Poe. He is tempestuous, feverish, troubled, and distinctly other. He struggles to relate to the people around him, and his inability to keep the women in his life is a source of constant self-loathing. He does display warmth and affection, too. It's just that these more humane qualities are eventually drowned out by the writer's insecurities and appetites for inspiration (that usually come with liver damage).
Nevermore's sublime music will stay with you. Matt Conner's score brings the already-vivid imagery of Poe's work crashing through with significant impact. Between Poe's words and Conner's haunting music— overlaid with the context of the writer's tragedy-filled life— Nevermore is a show you won't soon forget— in the best possible way.
Tickets are available here. The show runs weekends, through October 12.