Story: Aksentii Ivanovich Poprishchin is a clerk of the ninth grade in the civil government of St. Petersburg, Russia in the early 19th century. He’s far down the ladder of importance, but he fancies himself as a man to be highly regarded.

Poprishchin ekes out a living in his shabby apartment, attended by a Finnish maid of the building who brings him his meager meals while he idles away his free time imagining himself on the arm of Sophia, the beautiful daughter of a government director. Poprishchin’s fantasies accelerate as quickly as his mind deteriorates, as he rambles on about two dogs having a clandestine affair and sending love letters to each other which he has intercepted.

Convinced of his artistic superiority, Poprishchin keeps a detailed diary to chronicle his eventual rise above his mundane, mind-numbing job and his conquest of the beautiful Sophia, even as his mental health alarmingly declines.

Highlights: Upstream Theater artistic director Philip Boehm observes in his program notes that at Upstream “sanity is always a matter of perspective.” Boehm and his colleagues regularly scour the globe for scripts that are both fresh and foreign to St. Louis, usually with notable success.

Such is the case with this adaptation of a short story by 19th century Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. Penned by David Holman with Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush, Diary of a Madman premiered in Sydney in 1989 to critical acclaim. Boehm skillfully directs this local premiere in which Christopher Harris assumes the title role with skillful flair to accentuate a fine, affecting presentation.

Other Info: Poprishchin’s squalid, depressing apartment is symbolically encased within a ring of metal bars in Michael Heil’s absorbing scenic design, which also includes a dilapidated bed and a tiny but functional desk. It’s set within a circle of quill pens in ink pots to underscore Poprishchin’s obsession with jotting down his increasingly erratic observations. Pens, pots and other paraphernalia are carefully assembled in Claudia Mink Horn’s prop design.

Katie Donovan’s costumes match Heil’s set with Poprishkin’s shabby, ill-fitting, chalk-covered suit as well as a simple maid’s uniform and Sophia’s elegant gown, both worn by Magan Wiles. Steve Carmichael’s lighting is a suitable match for the grim surroundings.

Director Boehm includes an original score written and performed by pianist Joe Dreyer, who sits just off stage in his dapper derby hat and garb. Dreyer frequently switches musical motifs to match Poprishchin’s varied thoughts, offering up clever segments that evoke vaudeville, melodrama, classical and other styles, making the music a significant character in the story.

Wiles, a well-known actress in St. Louis who now resides in New York City, etches a humorous portrayal of the young maid who attempts to help the addled civil servant, whether with a bowl of broth or a reprimand that he get off to his job. She also appears as the lovely but unattainable young woman who is loved silently by Propishchin as well as another inmate of the asylum where he is sent, convinced he is the new king of Spain.

Harris, adorned in pale makeup to further heighten his sense of lunacy, artfully conveys the delusions that beset Propishchin, gradually revealing the man’s tenuous hold on his sanity as he stumbles, staggers and sways across the tiny stage that barely contains his inelegant body. It’s a carefully crafted impersonation, guided by Boehm’s adherence to Holman’s skillful adaptation.

Boehm wisely inserts an intermission into the brief work, which still runs less than two hours. Rather than hurt the flow of the drama, the interlude actually allows time to reinvigorate proceedings.

Harris was ill and unable to perform at two of the opening weekend’s productions. His appearance at Sunday evening’s presentation, though, seemed hale and hearty. Upstream’s Diary of a Madman can be slow in its development, but it’s a different and compelling interpretation of a literary classic.

Play: Diary of a Madman

Group: Upstream Theater

Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand

Dates: October 10, 11, 12, 13, 17, 18, 19, 20

Tickets: $20-$30; contact

Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of Peter Wochniak