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Center Stage presents 'Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe'
Center Stage opened its 50th anniversary season last month with “An Enemy of the People,” a heavy-handed, often dull play that an uneven cast could not quite enrich.

That has now been followed by “The Complete Fictional — Utterly True — Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe,” a heavy-handed, often dull play that a dynamic, well-matched cast cannot quite enrich.

It’s really a little too soon to worry about where Center Stage is headed, but artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah’s first two choices for the 2012-2013 lineup give one pause.

There was, of course, an obvious reason to consider “Enemy,” Arthur Miller’s Ibsen-inspired examination of politics and ethics, during an election season.

Likewise, it's understandable to focus on Poe, given the master of the macabre’s strong ties to Baltimore. But “The Final Strange Tale” seems ...

like a work in progress, still awaiting an editor’s dry-eyed surgery.

Premiered last year at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., the play was written by Stephen Thorne, a resident actor in that troupe. He takes as his starting point Poe’s final hours in October 1849.

How Poe ended up in Baltimore, much the worse for wear after a week that started in Philadelphia, has long been a subject of speculation. Thorne does not attempt so much to settle the matter as to peer into the poet’s state of mind at the end.

He gives us a confused, but defiant, Poe on his bed at Washington College Hospital, consumed by memories and hallucinations, determined to escape the embrace of death. There is plenty of theatrical potential here, and, at his best, the playwright imaginatively mixes history, fantasy and Poe’s own writings to create “a dream within a dream.”

Thorne can write lines that sing, startle and amuse. (Not since a quizzical Anne Francis delivered the line “Baltimore?” in the film version of “Funny Girl” has a script offered a character the chance to shine just by uttering our city’s name.)

But, too often, the vivid moments are followed by laborious bits of Freudian analysis. And several passages that have “final scene” written all over them turn out to introduce still more material. In the end, the play’s two-hour running time feels much longer.

The production from Trinity Rep, designed by Eugene Lee, gets effective mileage out of a wooden platform in a theater-in-the-round set-up. The center of that platform can be lowered deeply at will, perfect for conjuring up images of the grave.

Director Curt Columbus piles on some haunted house shtick, where just a touch would be more telling. But some of the spooky stuff does have a terrific visual payoff, especially in a scene that references Poe’s tale of mesmerism, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”

Bruce Randolph Nelson is the death-facing Poe. When it comes to chewing scenery, this actor is quite the gourmand, and he indulges his appetite fully here. The play-to-the-balcony emphasizing can get wearying, but the fire in the performance often hits home.

The other performers take on multiple roles — doctors, Poe family members, etc. — and do so with admirable flair.

Charlie Thurston is a particularly dynamic presence as Young Edgar — scenes between the two Poes, arguing over inspiration and life choices, are the play’s most intriguing and incisive. Jimmy Kieffer’s portrayal of Charles Dickens, seemingly the most unlikely figure to pop into Poe’s head, is delectably colorful.

But, for all the sparks from the cast, “The Final Strange Tale” doesn’t really end up shedding much light on the subject matter. Not does it grab hold and refuse to let go, the way any story about Poe should.

The production runs through Nov. 25.

PHOTO BY RICHARD ANDERSON

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