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A Raven in the Sun

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Astin's Poe-try in motion.
  • Astin's Poe-try in motion.

Edgar Allan Poe left a lot of questions unanswered when he returned from a weeklong stint to God-knows-where and took a short swim in a Baltimore gutter. But John Astin, who plays the writer in the one-man show Edgar Allan Poe -- Once Upon a Midnight in Tiffin Friday night, isn't concerned about such things. Given a shot at dinner with the late author, Astin would stick to literature in his cross-examination.

"The essence of Poe was in his work," he explains. "I would talk to him about some of the stories and poems. There are some things that I find interesting, that I'm curious about, that only he could answer."

Astin -- best known for his role as the loopy Gomez Addams on The Addams Family TV show -- is a big "admirer" of Poe. Big enough, in fact, that he secured a first edition of Poe's magnum opus, Eureka -- a rambling account of the author's physical and spiritual ruminations. It has been said that those who understand Eureka understand Poe, and Astin considers himself one of those fortunate few.

"It's a tough read," he admits. "But it's well worth it. It's essentially his view of who we are and what we're all about and what happens when we die." Fair to say, it also makes an excellent study companion for one playing the writer onstage. "I've spent a lot of time in researching Poe and studying his life and his work," Astin agrees. "I want the play to be something that Poe would approve of, that Poe would like, that Poe would feel grateful for."

But Once Upon a Midnight isn't simply a staged documentary of the man and his times. The play centers on the last three months of Poe's life, weaving fact and Poe's fiction to paint an image of his life. "There was no way to tell the story properly with just the facts," Astin says. "His work was his autobiography. The last three months of his life were a kaleidoscope of distressing events, and those are condensed into a kaleidoscope -- literally -- onstage."

Playing Poe for the past two years has been one of Astin's favorite roles, but though he feels a strong personal attachment to the character from studying his work, the role that made him famous may still rank above the rest for personal connection. "I had a great time on [The Addams Family]," he says. "I loved [Gomez] -- he's really an extension of me. Sort of my inner life brought out for people to look at. I wanted to present a character who was sort of a fulfillment of my own wishes. You know, to have that kind of a life -- the underlying sense of confidence and warmth that existed within this family."

The inner life of Poe exposed for the masses is, sadly, not so whimsical, but a sense of connection and family is still there for Astin, even as he acts as Poe died: by himself. "These people in Poe's life are so alive for me that I don't really get the feeling that I'm there alone onstage," he explains. "He was an everyman, but in the sense that he really had a mission to try and understand what life is all about. You don't have to know anything about Poe to enjoy this play. He was really just a very brilliant human being who was beset with obstacles in his life, but he uses all this light and darkness to create art."

And to think, if Poe had simply fed his whims with his inner child -- like ol' Gomez was wont to do -- he may just have gone into the basement and created toy train wrecks.

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