By Dennis Polkow
Autumn twilight at Peabody Estate in west suburban Oak Brook casts a bright orange hue across its vast Tudor exterior which contrasts with the blackness of the hill-covered forestry that enshrouds the property. This is the kind of house and setting that films such as “House on Haunted Hill” and “The Haunting” made famous and for decades, generations of kids on a dare from across the area would trek across acres of dense woods to view the mansion from across a small creek that now has homes and condominiums leading to it. This wooded estate was once the home of coal baron Francis S. Peabody, who died suddenly on the property while hunting in 1922 and was buried in an ornate chapel built right on the spot where he fell. Ever since, Chicago folklore has maintained that the site—commonly called “Peabody’s Tomb”—was haunted, especially during the seventy years that the estate was known as Mayslake, a Franciscan retreat house where brown-robed friars would allegedly patrol the property for teenaged trespassers who, if caught, were made to kneel in the chapel on a cold floor all night long. These days, as a landmark building on the National Register of Historic Places surrounded by acres of protected forest preserve, visitors are welcome to the mansion year round, but for the last two Halloween seasons, it has given a nod to its longtime haunted folklore past by playing host to Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Allan Poe in play form.
Entering the massive, hand-carved double-sided wooden door that leads to the entranceway of the home and the intricate, stained-glass wall that leads into the hall that serves as the main artery across the mansion, First Folio Shakespeare Festival founders and husband-and-wife team David Rice and Alison Vesely bid you welcome, both in Victorian garb that make them look as if they could be showing you their own home. “It all started with the house,” Rice admits, as we make the walk into the library, which doubles as Poe’s study and as such, has a raven or two mixed in with books in the myriad of bookshelves and a small wooden desk set by a stone fireplace that is the size of a small room in a normal-sized home. “We knew we wanted to do a Poe play in this space, and David went looking for one,” Vesely explains. “He was very unsatisfied with what he read and I overheard him say while reading one, ‘Gee, I could write something better than this.’ Being the smart-aleck that I am, I said, ‘Well, why don’t you?'”
“I wanted to include both sides of Poe, the macabre, dark side that he is so famous for,” says Rice, “but also Poe the poet and the love story between him and his wife Virginia. My daughter came by and said, ‘What is the name of the play?’ and I said, ‘The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe,’ and she said, ‘Oh, a love story,’ and the title stuck.” “I’m glad she didn’t say, ‘The Musical,’” Vesely quips. The premise of the play is that Poe’s often macabre subject matter, and particularly his fascination with the gooseflesh-raising and ghoulish details of death and dying, stem from his having witnessed and internalizing every agonizing detail of the deaths by consumption of all of the important women in his life, from his mother, to his stepmother, to his wife.
The Poes, a.k.a. veteran actors Larry Neumann Jr. and Diane Mair, have now entered the library about ninety minutes before that’s night’s show, still in their street clothes, having just arrived from their Chicago commute together and coming in via a side entrance. Neumann’s dead-ringer Poe appearance is somewhat obscured by a baseball cap that reveals the trademark moustache and only the edges of his long, stringy black hair, but he goes to the desk that is his in the show and it is clear that he feels right at home. “I have always loved Poe,” admits Neumann, in his trademark deeply resonant voice that fills the library and its surrounding halls even when he speaks quietly, “and this space has influenced the approach I take.” When audience members are first ushered in to the library, Neumann’s Poe recites “The Bells” for them, and within seconds, he has everyone in the large room in the palm of his hand, his voice musically uttering every syllable and cadence with considerable relish.
“This whole experience has been a collaboration in the best sense and an amazing success for us,” says Rice, who is getting ready to greet audience members in the hallway while Vesely, who is also the play’s director, starts taking tickets by the door. “Last night we had a troupe of girl scouts,” Rice continues with a small grin, “and they were scared to death upstairs hearing ‘Pit and the Pendulum’ in the dark. I remember sitting in the dark listening to old radio shows such as ‘Suspense’ that would tell you to turn out the lights, and I did, and it really is effective. But then there are those moments when a couple will be hearing ‘Annabelle Lee’ and you’ll see them grab hands or cuddle, or hear some sniffles in the audience; so macabre, yes, but we aim to be moving as well. And there’s something about this place and Poe that just go so well together.” So well, in fact, that when Rice began receiving inquiries from other companies to do the show, he didn’t see how it would work in conventional venues. “We are licensing it,” Rice says proudly, “but with the understanding that it be performed in other, historic mansions where it can hopefully have the same effect.”
“The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story” runs through October 28 at Mayslake Peabody Estate, 31st St. & Rt. 83, Oak Brook, (630)986-8067.