WESTMINSTER - "True! -- nervous -- very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?" the darkly clothed figure asked. "Hearken! and observe how healthily -- how calmly I can tell you the whole story."
Thus, Westminster's Don Mullins began his re-creation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" before a group crowded into the author's former home in Baltimore last weekend.
In an even voice, Mullins recounts the story of a man who murders his elder because of an "evil eye" and is then driven to confess because he thinks he hears the victim's heart still beating.
"The story works on the premise that (the storyteller) thinks he's proving he's not crazy by describing how meticulously he performed the murder," said Mullins, 24, adding that in his portrayal he is pounding on the floor at the end. "It's pretty intense theater."
In fact, it's Mullins' initial portrayal of the character as rather normal that has impressed people in his first year in the role.
"His appearance fools people," said Jeff Jerome, curator of the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum. "He looks mellow and nice, and people are lulled into thinking he's not crazy. Then he's five minutes into the story and people realize 'This guy's nuts!' " The performance, a 10-year Halloween tradition at the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, is also coupled with a dramatic reading of three Poe poems: "Annabel Lee," "The Raven" and "Alone."
"It's nice to be able to read something after having 20 minutes of monologue in your brain," said Mullins, a 1988 theater arts graduate of Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, W. Va.
Jerome said it's not easy for an actor to make that transition, noting that he's previously hired one actor for the story and another to do the reading.
"People are amazed he can go from this intense, crazed murderer to someone reading a love poem like 'Annabel Lee,' " he said, adding that the performance tries to show the audience that Poe was an accomplished poet as well as a horror story writer.
"If Edgar was here, he'd say 'All right, this is great!' " Mullins, a lifelong Poe fan, said he got this job after auditioning with the mime version of the story he began creating while studying with Marcel Marceau in Ann Arbor, Mich., during the summers of 1987 and 1988.
In this presentation, Mullins enters in a straitjacket, slowly narrating the beginning of the story. After he escapes from his bonds, lights flash and spin as Mullins mimes the murder sequence.
"I thought the Marceau technique lent itself well to flashbacks," he said. "It is a mixture of acting and mime."
Mullins then performed the piece as one of nine mimes selected nationwide to compete in the 1989 International Movement Theatre competition in Philadelphia.
Mullins said he enjoys performing in a variety of shows, from a mime, magic and juggling show he's putting together to dancing the role Drosslemeyer in "Nutcracker" this Christmas in Parkersburg, W. Va. But Poe is a part he'd like to play again.
Jerome said he would like to invite Mullins back.
"I've finally found an actor that reacts favorably to direction and doesn't have an ego the size of a Buick," Jerome said. "I hope I can use him for another year, and then he can go on to bigger and better things."