The death of Edgar Allan Poe could have — should have — been written by his own hand. The day before he died, Poe was found wandering the streets of Baltimore, delirious and disheveled, calling out to some mysterious person named Reynolds. He expired before recovering his sanity, and no one in the intervening 150 years has been able to discover who Reynolds was, what exactly killed Poe, or — and this is the kicker — how he came to be in Baltimore, since he had boarded a New York-bound ship in Richmond, Va. a week earlier. It’s almost too poetic to be believable.
Which is why Charleston Stage founder and local playwright Julian Wiles couldn’t resist diving into this missing week of Poe’s life, which became the inspiration for his 1996 play Nevermore. At the time, Wiles was looking for a play about Poe to produce and had come up with nothing. In the course of his research, he discovered this grand, final mystery that Poe left the world, albeit quite accidentally. “I thought, well, this is great material,” says Wiles. “There’s a lot of speculation about what happened, why he went mad: he was a drunkard, he was mentally ill, he had rabies, there are all kinds of possibilities. The good thing about it as a writer is that it was all so ambiguous. Even with all the research, I had a lot of freedom.”
Wiles used that freedom to construct his own story of the famous writer’s missing week. Nevermore finds Poe on that unexplained sea journey, where he awakens in a nightmare world of his own creation. The play features scenes from “The Telltale Heart,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Pit and the Pendulum” — all those stories that made you shiver back in eighth grade and which, if you re-read them, will make you shiver just as much as an adult. Wiles also drew heavily from Poe’s poetry, and audience members will recognize lines from “Annabel Lee,” “The Raven,” and “A Dream Within a Dream.” There are even allusions to a few of Poe’s lesser-known works, including his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. The novel also happens to be Wiles’ favorite Poe story. “It’s about an expedition to the Antarctic and it’s like a great Stephen King story,” Wiles says. “There are stories like this that people don’t know as well, so it’s fun for people to be introduced to them.”
And a Poe play by a Charleston playwright just wouldn’t be complete without a Sullivan’s Island cameo. Poe was briefly stationed on the island while in the Army and set several of his later stories there, including “The Gold Bug” and “The Oblong Box,” both of which get mentions in Nevermore.
Although the play is regularly produced around the country, the last time it graced a Charleston stage was in 2006. Since then Wiles, who is also directing this production, has made some changes. “I did some revisions to focus on key elements of [Poe’s] personality,” he says. “I think if you’ve seen it before, you’ll see a new take on it.” That newness is also due to an exceptionally strong cast, which will be led by New York Professional Equity Actor Andrew Gorell as Edgar Allan Poe. “I’ve had good casts before, but this cast has found things that make the show stronger. To me, it’s like a whole new play.”
That’s why, 16 years in, Wiles still enjoys working with Nevermore. “The great thing about Poe is he’s so rich and intriguing,” he says. “You always discover new things.”