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Soulful pathos fills Poe's life

October 17, 2002|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

What better way to gear up for Halloween than spending a couple of hours in the company of that morbid literary genius Edgar Allan Poe? That Poe died more than 150 years ago seems little more than a technicality, thanks to John Astin's thoroughly convincing performance in "Edgar Allan Poe, Once Upon a Midnight" at the Hermosa Beach Playhouse.

Astin slides into the role as if it were a well-worn cloak. His sad-eyed, soulful first-person address brings pathos to this well-researched tale of Poe's tragic life, co-written by Paul Day Clemens and Ron Magid.

Rescuing Poe's reputation as a dissolute drunkard, Astin reveals a deeply passionate artist and luminous intellect undone by his inability to master the mundane logistics of survival.

Of the maniacal nonchalance Astin perfected as the definitive Gomez on TV's "The Addams Family," only a few echoes appear, always at appropriate moments, as when Poe gleefully recounts some of his outrageous journalistic hoaxes and merciless critiques of peers.

Astin's generally breezy, unsentimental narrating style is punctured by devastating eruptions of feeling -- over the death of the stepfather whose love he was never able to earn, or his realization that the ravaging consumption that had claimed his mother and stepmother had now laid its grip on his beloved wife.

The latter sequence is enhanced by one the few visual flourishes in Alan Bergmann's minimal staging: the image of a white dress suddenly bathed in crimson light, signaling a transition to a chilling passage from "The Mask of the Red Death."

Overcoming the challenges in integrating excerpts from Poe's writing is one of the production's most striking achievements.

Reciting "The Raven" in its entirety, Astin cannot afford to milk each line for atmosphere a la Vincent Price; it would take him most of the second act.

Instead, he races through the poem as an author would in recalling his own familiar words, gradually getting caught up in their power and finishing on a dramatic crescendo.

Another masterstroke is when Poe's ruminations during dinner with his abusive stepfather become the murderer's loathing description of his victim in "The Tell-Tale Heart." The narration's skillful emulation of Poe's writing style smoothes over such transitions.

In illuminating the connection between Poe's personal tragedies and his macabre aesthetic, Astin's performance is flawless.

"Edgar Allan Poe, Once Upon a Midnight," Hermosa Beach Playhouse, 710 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach. Tonight-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Sunday. $40-$45. (310) 372-4477. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

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