by Len Lear
With the original play, “Dissever My Soul,” Widener University’s Lone Brick Theatre Company is currently performing at Historic Rittenhouse Town, 208 Lincoln Drive in Germantown, as part of the annual Philadelphia FringeArts Festival. The play explores the final days of Edgar Allan Poe’s life as the father of the detective story.
The play was conceptualized by company director, Robert A. Reutter, 40-ish years old, and developed with Widener students. It opened Sept. 4 and will continue through the 19th, starting at 9 p.m. each evening. This “immersive play” tells a love story that only the master of horror, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), could tell.
The play attempts to unravel Poe’s greatest mystery: that of life itself. By taking laudanum, an opium-based painkiller that was popular in the Victorian era, Poe and audience members alike delve into a spirit world where the writer’s characters come to life to further their own agendas, but are they friends or foes? The veil between fiction and reality thins and is finally torn asunder as Poe navigates the macabre world of his making to fulfill the promise of the love story he never put to paper.
“The show is meant to explore Edgar Allan Poe in a manner to which he is rarely treated as a subject,” explained Reutter, “Somewhere amid the skewed perspectives of Poe as an alcoholic, as a drug addict and as a mentally unstable man, history and popular myth have created a rather unflattering view of a Poe who was constantly, tragically coming apart at the seams. What is often forgotten is that even among his greatest critics, he was labeled a genius, and Poe himself had a finely tuned, logical mind. His writing, both fiction and non-fiction, suggest a man much more rational and in control than history would have him.”
Regarding the location of the performances in Germantown, Reutter explained, “Rittenhouse Town and its proximity to Wissahickon Creek provide a perfect backdrop for ‘Dissever.’ Poe frequented the Wissahickon Trail and perceived the locale as magical.”
Running 90 minutes and limited to an audience of 15 per performance, “Dissever My Soul” is an intimate and personal experience in which audiences will interact with Poe and the denizens of his imagination. During the show audiences will be walking, standing, climbing stairs and interacting with the performers. Members of the audience may also be left alone in the dark or in confined spaces for brief periods. The show is performed both indoors and outdoors. Audience members should dress accordingly.
Reutter, who conceived of “Soul,” is a senior lecturer at Widener University in Chester, where he has been on the faculty since 2008. He earned a masters degree in English Literature from Rosemont College in 2009. His thesis was on “No More Room in Hell: Transgressive Abjection in ‘Frankenstein & Dracula.’”
What is it about Poe the person and Poe the writer, who lived in several homes in Philadelphia from 1837 to 1844 and published several of his greatest works here, that has made Reutter a Poe champion? “Poe is one of those individuals who suffers from great critical acclaim professionally but has a bad reputation personally,” Reutter told us in an interview last week.
“Shortly after his death, he was dismissed and heavily criticized for his addictions and pauperism. This was the beginning of a legacy that painted a romanticized portrait of Poe as this tortured and psychologically damaged individual. My perspective on Poe, at least for the purposes of the show, is to look at his life as one that wasn’t only redeemable because of his literary contributions. “The idea of personal redemption, of Poe achieving something that seemed to only exist in the pages of his fiction was appealing to me. Among the death and brutality of his writing, Poe creates beauty. Even the narrator’s bleak trek to the ancestral house of Usher is beautiful in its language.”
Performances of “Soul” will run as scheduled in light rain. Rain dates will be available for heavier weather conditions. Food and drink will be offered to audience members periodically during the show. Should audience members have allergy concerns, they are strongly encouraged to decline when food is offered.