FAYETTEVILLE — Eliza Poe lingers in playwright Bob Ford’s thoughts.
He started researching Poe, mother of writer Edgar Allan Poe, 17 years ago for a former actress girlfriend in New York. That evolved, through years of twists and turns, into his new mystery play, The Fall of the House.
Presented by TheatreSquared, Ford's play opens Friday (April 13) and runs Thursdays through Sundays through May 6 at Nadine Baum Studios in Fayetteville.
Years ago, Ford started writing a one-woman show about Eliza Poe, who died at 24 from tuberculosis, and he became fascinated with her. She’d married another actor, David Poe, who abandoned her when she was pregnant with their third child. Edgar was 2 when she died.
"She was on the cusp of being a real star. She was a comedienne and Shakespearean actress, and very successful," Ford said.
But that one-woman play didn't get very far, and Ford started to see the material as a full-length play. He was intrigued by two big gaps in history. One is the last week of Edgar Allan Poe's life, when he disappeared.
"No one has any idea what was going on during that week," Ford said. "Then he showed up stark, raving mad in a tavern and never really regained any kind of rational consciousness, and died just a few days after that."
Another mystery has to do with what happened to Poe's father, a terrible actor married to a wonderful actress, who just disappeared. Ford threaded those two mysteries together through a character named Munny, an escaped slave with her own agenda.
A HOUSE FALLS
The Fall of the House follows the stories of characters Munny and Janis, a successful black architect. Their stories take place two centuries apart, jumping in and out of about four or five time periods.
Also an orphan, architect Janis Berry has a lot in common with Edgar Allan Poe. As a child, she mysteriously acquired a piece of paper with a poem written by Poe in that last week of his life. "She's strangely haunted by Poe. She never understands why," Ford said.
The first scene shows a middle-aged Munny approaching Poe on the deck of a steamship. She tries to talk to him, and he resists.
The next scene shifts to a present-day courtroom, where a lawyer grills Janis. A home designed by Janis burned down, killing a young girl, and she is defending herself in the wrongful death civil suit.
Flashing back in time, Munny brings soup to an ailing Eliza Poe. Though Munny is the mistress of Eliza's husband, the women form a friendship, and Eliza teaches Munny to act.
"These two storylines come together at the end, and we ultimately understand what that connection is," Ford said. "This will be one of the more complex stories that audiences will experience in the theater. And we're spending a lot of time in rehearsals making sure it's understandable because it's so complicated."
In a flashback to Janis as a graduate student at Yale University, she meets another student, Jack, in the rare book library, where they’re both perusing Poe documents. She shares her mysterious letter with Jack, and they try to decipher what it means. One side contains the note from David Poe to his wife Eliza, which mentions Munny. On the other side is the poem scribbled by Edgar Allan Poe 38 years later.
The story is "about these two women who are desperately needing to connect with love and who have had love wrenched from them at some point in their life, and trying to get back to that,” Ford said. “And the play gives it to them at the end.”
THE TIPPING POINT
Ford got acquainted with Fayetteville in 1994 through a now defunct new play retreat. He later moved here and married his wife, Amy Herzberg. Ford and Herzberg are among the founders of TheatreSquared, a professional regional theater company in its sixth season.
Leaving New York in 1995, Ford went to graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, where he worked on this mystery play more than any other, and it became his graduate thesis. He also took a break from writing plays for about five years to write his novel, The Student Conductor (2003).
This play has gone through countless workshops. After Ford was invited to the Southern Writers Project at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival — and the play was again workshopped there — it was produced there in 2010.
A play is never really done — Ford is still fine-tuning the piece for the upcoming production. But, there's a tipping point at which a play is working overall, and it’s good enough for someone to say they'll produce it.
When writing this play, he saw one of his favorite all-time plays, Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard. It takes place in one location, but two time periods. He was also influenced by reading the book Possession, by A.S. Byatt, which explores recently discovered documents and letters. Ford pursued a contemporary storyline in this play, to make the story more relevant.
While in New York, Ford did much research on slavery in the 1790s, for a screenplay. Wanting to keep creatively exploring that area, the character of Munny was born.
"I was intrigued at the time by the deafening silence in the historic record of this huge, vast segment of our population," Ford said of slaves.
Ford got the story going first, then mined an Edgar Allan Poe biography for answers. He also read case studies involving architects in lawsuits, but pulled back on the amount of technical detail in the play.
A MYSTERY INVENTOR
Edgar Allan Poe invented the modern detective story, and the title of Ford’s play ties into the title of Poe’s famous short story, The Fall of the House of Usher. Though Ford set out to write a human drama, he ended up with a mystery.
"When you realize that you're writing a mystery, you start to pay attention to certain expectations of the audience,” he said. "Mysteries are really about the pace with which you drop clues. You want to tease people just the right amount. I really think if people come to this looking for a mystery, it's going to help them."
People often try to solve mysteries all along the way, trying to get ahead of the author. Ford wants that here. He wants the audience to work.
"It's really important for people to realize that they will eventually understand how all these things relate. But at first, they're going to be scrambling a little bit," he said. "We will eventually tell you everything that you need to know. Hopefully, it'll all come together in a really satisfying way in the end.”
HAVING HER SAY
Ford tried rigorously to remain true to the biographies of Eliza and Edgar Allan Poe because, though none of this fictional story happened, "it could have happened."
Though Munny and Janis are the main characters, a third character, Eliza Poe, is also prominent. After all, this all started from his attempted one-woman play about Eliza, whose short life held "inherent drama.”
“She'd embarked on a brilliant career as an actress. She had three little ones. And she was making it all work,” he said.
Eliza was being typecast as a comedienne but wanted to do tragedy. She got slammed by a critic for trying to play Shakespeare’s Ophelia. In Ford’s play, he gives Eliza her say, posthumously.
"She's getting to live on. And she speaks very directly," he said.
WORLD OF THEATER
The play is performed in a black-box theater, which seats about 175 and offers the audience an intimate experience. Ford was part of the production team, and they knew exactly who they wanted for lighting, costumes, set and sound design.
The set needed to incorporate a dozen locations — from steamship to courtroom. That variety was also necessary in It's a Wonderful Life, so he used the same set designer. Good costume design — with higher definition for contemporary costumes and muted colors for older ones — is also essential.
"We really have been testing the limits of our space, and this once again really pushes the envelope," Ford said.
For Ford, as a playwright and theater-goer, plays are less about conveying a message to the world than "emotion and catharsis."
"There are deeply painful things about being alive," he said. "[Theater] is not an escape valve. It's a place where we can acknowledge that struggle. And something more important than anything — than political message, than any of that — is being able to go somewhere and, with other people, sort of share the acknowledgement that, wow, we're all struggling."
"I love it when there's this little handhold of redemption," he added.
Writing about human interactions allows him to explore what he loves best about live theater.
"I love theatrical moments that are freighted with meaning and emotion. So, as a playwright, I get to create those moments. There is a selfish aspect of creating them so that I can enjoy them."
TheatreSquared has produced two other plays penned by Ford: 'Twas the Night and My Father's War.
Tickets to The Fall of the House can be bought here.