The Artistic Community Theatre of Pekin is going back in time this Halloween season with four spooky, atmospheric stories from classic horror writer Edgar Allan Poe that are interconnected through one psychological play.
The Pekin community theater will be performing “Nightfall with Edgar Allan Poe,” a 2014 play by playwright Eric Coble, at 7:15 p.m. on two Fridays, Oct. 12 and 19, and two Saturdays, Oct. 13 and 20, on the second floor of the Pekin Union Mission, 203 Court St. Tickets are $15 per person and can be purchased at the door or online through a link on the event tab on the theater's Facebook page, @ACTPekin.
Told on a simple but gothic set, the serious but sometimes also humorous show consists of four of Poe’s most famous works: “The Raven,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Each story is immediately followed by the other as Poe as narrator and sometimes as a character within the stories, uses the tension-filled tales to convince the audience he’s not mad.
“Well, this is a perfect show for Halloween,” said director Tara Williams. “It’s scary. It’s spooky. (Poe) was the Stephen King of his time. He was a horror writer. That’s what he did, and it scared the tar out of people back in the 1800s. We’re trying to make it as spooky and atmospheric as possible, kind of an alternative to going to, say, a haunted house.”
Williams said Coble picked the four best tales for his play as they embody Poe. She believes the playwright saw Poe as someone who was sort of “in his own world, in his own mind. So, as you go through the four scenes, you hint at parts of his personality.”
“One of the running themes through the whole show is loss, death and the yearning for the loss of Lenore, who (in the play is) Poe’s muse, his love, and so, that’s kind of what drove him to his insanity,” Williams said. “And then it kind of mirrored his real life. He had so much loss in his life through the loss of his wife and his girlfriends and he was” an alcoholic. “So by the poem ‘The Raven,’ one of the things he’s always going on about (is) Lenore, and the raven as an entity represents the death, the loss.”
Actor Rick Jensen is tackling the character of Poe for his second show with Pekin’s community theater, the first being three years ago. Jensen is passionate about the author’s work. His reasons for trying out for the part, though, were also more personal than that.
“I’m a huge Poe fan. I just love Edgar’s work,” Jensen said. “To me, he’s kind of the godfather of fiction. There’s not many writers before him, if you look historically, who actually did stories and things. And he kind of parallels to who I am, how my life has been. I’ve suffered from alcoholism, and so did he. And so there’s another attachment for me. So, when the chance came to audition, I did about two months of research and really got into Poe’s life.”
Through his research, one choice Jensen made was to perform Poe with a southern accent, which some might not expect for the author connected with Boston and Baltimore. The accent is based in real life as Poe was raised by a couple from Richmond, Va., after his father abandoned the family and his mother passed away. The accent suits Poe’s work, which Jensen said reads better if read with a certain southern style.
Out of the four stories, “The Raven” is particularly challenging, Jensen said. It’s the only story the show adapts word for word. People know it so well, that, as an actor, Jensen can’t afford to mess up, he said.
While he loves Poe, Jensen wants people to put the author to the side when they come see the show, because while Poe elements are present, it’s ultimately Eric Coble’s show, not Poe’s.
“So come and be entertained because you love Poe...and then let the Poe in you just kind of settle back and just kind of enjoy the entertainment of it...It’s not a book report. You’re coming to see a show, and so enjoy yourselves and have fun with it and support us,” Jensen said.
The 90 to 100 minute show, which is recommended for those 13 and up, has no intermission. Williams did this intentionally.
“I decided not to put an intermission (in and) not to break up the stories because I like the tension,” she said. “There’s a lot of tension between ‘Usher,’ ‘Pit,’ and ‘Tell-Tale Heart.’ And so, if I was to break that up, that tension that we’re building, that silence, that just fright would be broken up, and I really want the audience to feel that tension, that nervousness.”
For those needing cheering up after four grim tales, they have the option to eat some “comfort cookies,” as Williams calls them, after the show.
Williams' ambitions for the show go beyond the four performances. She’s looking to the future, as well.
“Ideally, we would like a home,” she said. “This theater is beautiful. It’s a hidden gem here in Pekin, and what we would like to do is just establish that we can have full-blown shows again. Because the shows that we’ve had have had to be traveling shows, and so, we’re hoping to maybe build a better partnership with the (Union) Mission to be able to use this gorgeous, beautiful stage that’s here.”
Jensen feels similar about the show’s potential but also wants to do a good job as an actor.
“As a whole for our company, this is really a make or break show for us…I’d really like this show to succeed so that we can have another one,” Jensen said. “As an actor, I want to do Poe justice. I really want to bring to life Poe and have those people who really know Poe be like, ‘That was a good job. That was solid.’ That would make me feel good. And then I just want to tell people stories. I just love to tell people stories, and that’s just really, I think, what theater is all about to me. Here’s a script; tell this story to these people that want to come listen to you talk about it. That’s the fun. That’s the good part.”