Robert Ford’s “The Fall of the House” is the kind of play that reminds me what theatre can accomplish, the subtle ways in which it can reveal us, bring to light our culture and history. As the title would suggest, the play spirals around Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in which a brother and sister are supernaturally chained to their ancestral home. As you walk into the lobby you are greeted with a note from the playwright himself, facts about Poe that hint at the heart of what you are about to experience: how no one knows where Poe was or what happened to him the week before he showed up raving at a tavern in Baltimore just days before he died; how Poe was orphaned at a young age, his mother dying from TB and his father never heard from again; how the story will “jump and spin like a dream.”
The play is masterfully constructed, jumping, indeed, from scenes of Eliza Poe dying, reciting Macbeth, to Edgar on the steamer headed for Baltimore during his last days, to a young architect of our day, caught in a mysterious obsession with Poe and his work. The set is minimal, crossed with sloping ramps that fall to the audience’s feet. Only a bed, stuck in a corner near the center, the brightest thing on stage, becomes the crucial symbol for family, for death and resurrection – the meeting place of dreamers and their dreams.
Many of the actors themselves shift fluidly from character to character. All but two: architect Janice Berry, played to the quick by Christy Hall, who is haunted by Poe and plagued by nightmares of her buildings’ violent destruction, and the escaped slave with mystical gifts, Leslie Ann Sheppard’s Munny. Director Kevin Christopher Fox seems keen to blur the edges between characters, the leaps from Poe’s time to ours, as the actors cross each other trance-like on stage in scene transitions.
All in all, the cast is rich with talent and Fox strikes many fine notes. Sheppard’s performance, in particular, is majestic, pitch-perfect, but her presence never overpowers. Hall’s Janice is layered and deeply moving (especially in the final scene). Local rising starlet E. J. Ogbeide, who plays the young Janice and Linney, gives a remarkable performance for so young an actor. Laura Shatkus is a memorable, lovable Eliza Poe. John T. Smith shines best in the playful scenes, especially an early tussle between David Poe and Munny, one of a couple scenes where Ford’s gift for believable romance is felt. Steven Marzolf’s Poe was a little too charming for me, not quite plumbing the depths of the famous, brooding genius. But, admittedly, that’s being pretty picky.
That being said, the show is cerebral, complex, challenging – not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea. While you do not have to be a Poe scholar or even need to read the eponymous short story beforehand (though, I’ll bet you want to afterward), the play is built as homage to his craft, the cleverness of his plot constructions. Poe buffs, on the other hand, will really freak. But, that does not mean it isn’t accessible. Fall of the House also deals frankly with racism, sexism, and so many fears we sometimes pretend to be history’s alone. I applaud TheatreSquared for staging such work, for giving our community a space in which to express, discuss, confront those issues. Oscar Wilde once wrote, “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” This is that kind of theatre, resonant at its heart. I hope the community comes out in support of Fall of the House. Such successful new work is hard to come by.
Parents, the play does feature strong language and mature subjects. Fall of the House will run through May 6. Tickets can be purchased at theatre2.org or by calling the Walton Arts Center box office at 479-443–5600.