Nevermore! Edgar Allan Poe, the Final Mystery
Charleston Stage Company
Running Oct. 25-28, Nov. 2-4 at 8 p.m.
Oct. 29 at 3 p.m.
Dock Street Theatre
135 Church St., 577-7183

Charleston Stage productions are the blockbusters of local theatre. Their lighting costs alone outstrip some of the littler locals’ total budgets. Like big Hollywood movies, they’re high on audience-grabbing concept and cool special effects but often low on fully-fleshed characters with credible relationships.

Nevermore! has been busting blocks across the nation for 12 years now with its lively slices of Edgar Allan Poe tales. Writer/director Julian Wiles — the producing director of Charleston Stage Co. — has to be commended for creating such a robust export fueled by his passion for Poe-ana. With light-handed allusions to Poe’s tour of duty at Fort Moultrie and a gleeful sense of the macabre, it’s a fitting Halloween show for local audiences.

Inspired by true events, Nevermore! uses Poe’s final days as its starting point. Poe was the 19th-century literary equivalent of Jim Morrison, with a string of hits (his poetry was endlessly bootlegged) and a career marred by gambling and drinking. People magazine would have been ecstatic when Poe disappeared a week before his demise, pitching up in Baltimore in a feverish state, never to return to lucidity. But even after his death, his work continued to grow in popularity, as if his vivid characters had lives of their own.

Like some theatrical version of M. Dupin, the detective hero of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Wiles investigates the mystery and fills in the gaps with his own flights of fancy. Legend has it that Poe took a ship to New York City during his mystery week, so Wiles places him on a storm-tossed vessel where there’s little hope of escape from the author’s lurid nightmares.

There isn’t room in a two-hour play to do justice to all of Poe’s celebrated yarns; some, like Rue Morgue and Hop-Frog, have to settle for a couple of mentions. Others are celebrated in full-blown set pieces: a Masque of the Red Death with bad juggling and a horrific ending; a Pit and the Pendulum with a swinging blade and noisy denouement. Poe’s work lends itself to such operatic trimmings, but there are other things that make him a great read — an encroaching, fatalist atmosphere, a logical build-up to a fantastic climax — that aren’t quite captured here. Nevermore! seems more focused on his concepts than the complex feelings that his work can evoke.

The show’s more successful in its Charleston references, showing us a young Poe on Sullivan’s Island with his great lost love, Annabel Lee. Preston Hogue plays a suitably arrogant yet likeable lad in enormous blue pants, courting Annabel Lee with heartfelt poetry that threads through the play. An older Annabel (Mallory Good) recounts these early days, sharing the stage with her younger self (Kathryn Romaine) in an effective narrative device. Of the two Annabels, Romaine comes off best with natural inflections and a casual charm that helps to hook the audience.

By the time he’s a grown man, Poe’s depicted by Benjamin Larvie and engaged in some serious sipping. As he staggers down the raked stage he switches from maudlin to obnoxious, randy to reasonable with credible transitions. He rattles through “The Raven” on the assumption that the audience will know it, and some key words are lost in his drunken mumbling, but Larvie still manages to carry the bulk of the show, as his character stumbles from one vignette to another, stuck in a self-created nightmare.

His associates on this hellish journey are Captain Nimrod, boisterously performed by Burton Tedesco, and Antarctic explorer Jeremiah Reynolds. Actor John Edwards gives Reynolds some extra dimensions and creates an interesting figure in a handful of carefully chosen moments that don’t detract from the main action.

Many of the actors play multiple roles, including Romaine and Hogue. Not all of the acting is at the leads’ level, but Sheridan Essman and Zack Knudsen come across particularly well, with Knudsen’s Viscount adding depth to the “Red Death” scene.

Only one sequence really fails to deliver the goods — a Tell-Tale Heart homage is overlong, with “funny” characters who generally aren’t. There’s little difference between two shouting policemen, and all of the inhabitants of this story seem caricatured.

A thumping heartbeat sound effect helps pep things up, as do Laura Manning Turner’s moody musical cues. The lighting also helps to build a feeling of dread wonder, using yellow, stark red, and more purple than a Prince concert. A crafty set makes good use of the proscenium, with some of the cast appearing from behind and beneath the set in ingenious ways. There are plenty of tricks to keep the audience watching, and the plot follows a traditional, symmetrical structure.

Everything is exaggerated in this production — the pants, the props, the acting, and the sound design. Sneak some popcorn into the cheap seats, take some friends, pretend you’re at the multiplex, and you won’t be disappointed.