'Poe's Last Night' at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre depicts famous poet's life

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Once upon a midnight dreary, David Crawford pondered a theory:

“Wouldn’t it be interesting to do a one-man show based on the death of Edgar Allan Poe? I could call it ‘Poe’s Last Night!’”

Actually, the idea came to Mr. Crawford at a horror convention.

Quoth the author:

“I got into the horror scene because I had a decent role in George Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ in 1978,” said Mr. Crawford, who is an actor living in Oakland. “And because of that, I get invited to horror conventions. There’s a surprising number of them around the country, and I go to meet fans and chat and sign autographs and that sort of thing.

“Well, I was at a convention in Chicago about three years ago and the guy sitting next to me was selling Edgar Allan Poe T-shirts, and they were going fast. He was doing a great business, and I was impressed by how popular Poe is to this day.

“I thought, ‘You know, I should have something to take to the horror conventions other than having been in a movie years ago,’ and I thought maybe a Poe show would be nice because they do live shows and presentations sometimes. So I began putting it together, memorizing and doing the research. And here it is on stage in Pittsburgh three years later.”

The celebrated author and poet comes to life — and dies — at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre on Liberty Avenue, Downtown, tonight and Saturday and concludes with a performance Sunday — Poe’s birthday.

It’s a show that he hasn’t performed very much. It made its debut at a festival in Edinboro, Scotland, and he had a week’s run with it at a resort in Michigan last July. In Pittsburgh, Mr. Crawford has performed it at Halloween in 2012 and as part of First Night at the start of 2013.

But this production at Pittsburgh Playwrights — directed by Monteze Freeland — has taken the show to the next level.

“It’s been very stimulating to work with the people at Pittsburgh Playwrights,” Mr. Crawford said. “We’ve added production value, lights and sound. I’d been doing it in a very bare kind of way so I could do it anywhere. But having the technical stuff is great, it’s inspiring. I’m adding new things, intensifying the performance and getting new ideas about how to do it. And the audiences have been great, too.”

Mr. Crawford wasn’t always the biggest Poe fan.

“I respected him immensely and occasionally enjoyed some of his work,” he said. “I was an English major at one point. He’s not regarded with great veneration in the English departments. He is admired because he was such a pioneer. He invented the detective story. Sherlock Holmes and everybody that came after him are an outgrowth of ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue.’ He invented the science-fiction story. He brought the Gothic tradition over from Germany and pioneered the American horror story. He had a wondrous imagination and was very productive. Not a great stylist, but good enough to be respected.”

Poe’s work is known for its darkness, its haunting yearning. The man himself is known for the same characteristics.

Even his death is a mystery, which makes “Poe’s Last Night” all the more intriguing.

“It starts with him entering. He’s running away from people who are beating him,” Mr. Crawford said. “Then he talks to the audience about where he is and what’s been happening. And he goes back over his life. He talks about his wife, who has died, his mother, his enemies in the literary world, his foster father, who disinherited and disliked him.”

There are many parallels between characters in Poe’s life and characters in his stories. Mr. Crawford uses parts of those stories to shine light on Poe’s darkness.

“I took as much as I could from facts about his life, and I used some dramatic license as well,” Mr. Crawford said. “Actually, his last night was spent in a hospital, where he lingered for four days. But I am using his last words — ‘Lord, help my poor soul’ — which are the last words of the play.”

It isn’t all dark and depressing. There are moments of humor, Mr. Crawford said, and the reactions from audiences has been encouraging.

“I think it’s an enjoyable experience of getting to know a figure who has been famous for a century and a half but whom most people didn’t know anything about, really,” he said. “I’m trying to present a broad picture of who the man was. He was wonderfully affectionate. He worked awfully hard. He wasn’t just crazy and drunk all the time.”

Admission is $25, $20 for seniors and students. Tonight’s show at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, 937 Liberty Ave., Third Floor, is at 8 p.m. Saturday’s shows are at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday’s performance is at 5 p.m.

After that, it’s nevermore.

Dan Majors: dmajors@post-gazette.com.

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