David and I had a great time at the Nashville Public Library last night watching “Nevermore,” a one-man play about Edgar Allan Poe. Jeffrey Combs starred. It was also a very appropriate date for the show: yesterday was Poe’s 202nd birthday.
The show began with an abridged version of “The Telltale Heart,” which made it clear how funny that story actually is, with the narrator going on about how he’s not insane because he planned the murder so carefully. “Poe” explained his aesthetic philosophy and insulted Longfellow and Washington Irving (the “Headless Author”). “Annabel Lee,” “The Bells,” and two other poems I didn’t recognize were also included. Throughout, he kept taking nips from his hip flask of whiskey, until he was rip-roaring drunk: impressive and hilarious physical comedy resulted. Poe’s character was revealed to be a complex mix of self-pity and arrogance; his complaints about poverty and under-appreciation led to more general statements showing a truly bleak outlook on life (big surprise, right?). The finale was of course “The Raven,” then he recited “A Dream Within a Dream” lit only by a candle as a kind of encore and farewell.
I was so impressed with Jeffrey Combs’s acting. (I’d never heard of him, but apparently he’s been on Star Trek and a lot of sci-fi and horror movies.) A one-man show must be the scariest thing an actor can ever do, but Combs more than pulled it off. He held us rapt with attention even when he spent minutes just staring at a dried flower, absorbed in memory. The range he showed in this show, blending the tragic and comic, the physical with the cerebral and emotional, on top of the pure vocal acrobatics, were in themselves the signs of a master actor. And he did the best improvised cell-phone scolding I’ve ever seen. Just after a line about forgiveness, a phone rang. He said, “And I forgive you, sir, you and your infernal contraption.”
Happy Birthday, Poe!