KEARNEY — The short stories of Edgar Allan Poe focus on the macabre — creating a perfect prelude to the Halloween season.
“Playwright Eric Coble took four of Edgar Allan Poe’s favorite pieces and he wove them together with the guise of Edgar Allan Poe being the main character,” said Darin Himmerich. “You do get the stories, and then there is a background story that pulls them together; that’s Edgar Allan Poe himself.”
From a historical perspective, Poe holds the place as the first well-known American author to make a living from his writing. Scholars credit him with inventing the genre of detective fiction and perfecting the role of the short story in American literature.
“Edgar Allan Poe was one of America’s first famous writers,” Himmerich said. “He didn’t write as a sideline and he didn’t only become famous after he died. He actually made his living as a writer. That was important. He also set up the genre of the macabre.”
“Nightfall with Edgar Allan Poe,” written by Coble, features a theatrical retelling of “The Raven,” “Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and “The Telltale Heart.” University Theatre at Kearney will present the show Wednesday through Sunday at the Miriam Drake Theatre in the Fine Arts Building on the University of Nebraska at Kearney campus. Himmerich, associate professor of theater at UNK, will direct the show.
The drama includes six performers. One of them plays Poe throughout the entire production.
“Edgar Allan Poe did a lot in his lifetime,” Himmerich said. “He unfortunately was a very troubled person.”
Poe, orphaned as a young child, suffered from alcoholism and died in 1849 at the age of 40.
“We really wanted to perform the show closer to Halloween but our schedule didn’t quite allow for that,” Himmerich said. “It’s still a sort of setup for the Halloween season. All four of these pieces are all from the macabre of his genre.”
The director used psychology to help formulate a structure for the show, acknowledging an undercurrent in the stories.
“There is a certain tension in this show,” he said. “We related the stories to the fears that are inherit to everyone. If you read about psychology, there are five fears that everyone has. Fear of spiders is a sub-genre of one of those fears. I think Poe was a master at looking at those fears and utilizing those fears to tell a story.
While rehearsing the show, Himmerich and his cast of students discovered something surprising in the script — humor.
“Some of the pieces contact funny things,” he said. “You laugh to sort of let that tension subside a little.”
Himmerich watched horror movies as a teenager. He also read Poe’s stories, recalling the horror aspect of the plots.
“Now when I reread those stories, I realize that he doesn’t write ‘horror,’ not like a horror movie with a monster chasing you,” Himmerich said. “Not that kind of horror. What Poe does is create suspense. He sets up something and preys on a specific fear. If you think about ‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’ that’s a great example. Here is somebody who has been thrown in a pit. It has to do with the Crusades; that’s why he’s there.”
Himmerich told the actor playing the victim to imagine a black SUV pulling up to his house, filled with men in black suits who snatch him away.
“They take you and throw you in a room,” he said. “You don’t know why you’re there, you don’t know that anybody knows you’re there and you have no rights. They can come in day or night, beat you up, torture you — or just let you sit there for a month at a time. It’s that fear of unknowing, a fear of helplessness. The loss of autonomy is one of those basic fears. That’s what this play is all about.”
Himmerich notes that the script would appeal to older teens and adults.
“There is no offensive language, there is no sexuality — it’s a very mundane show as far as that goes,” he said. “But I don’t know that little children would understand it. I think anyone, middle school and older, would understand it and enjoy it. And for anybody who has ever read any of Poe’s works before, they would enjoy it too.”