The Dark At The Top Of The Stairs: I Remember It Well
Playwright William Inge was known for insightful dramas of everyday living performed in a naturalistic style, but for Transport Group's new production of his 1957 masterwork The Dark At The Top Of The Stairs director Jack Cummings III takes a bold and extremely effective risk in interpreting the piece impressionistically as a nightmarish memory.
Set in the early 1920's, Inge's semi-autobiographical play concerns the financial woes, sexual tensions, adolescent traumas, and spousal abuse within the Flood family, a middle class Oklahoma clan continually on the verge of implosion. Former cowboy Rubin Flood (Patrick Boll) has never been one to be tied down to working in a store or an office and it's suggested he never intended to be tied down to a wife and family either. Though his wife Cora (Donna Lynne Champlin) wishes he'd quit his job as a traveling salesman for a harness company and take a position where he can stay at home and be more of a father to their two children, he resists despite knowing that the automobile will soon be the end of his career. Too proud to admit his inability to provide, Cora sees him as stingy, especially when it comes to getting a new dress for their shy sixteen-year-old daughter Reenie (Colby Minifie) to wear at a formal country club birthday party she's been invited to.
The bulk of the play takes place after Rubin storms out of the house after a horrible fight with Cora, who accuses him of having an affair. Not knowing if he'll ever come back, she attempts to get Reenie though her social obligations while trying to control her tantrum-prone 10-year-old, Sonny (Jack Tartaglia), who is only happy when retreating into his own world of going to the movies and collecting photographs of the stars.
Without changing Inge's words, but by presenting the beginning and ending in a new fashion, Cummings focuses the play on Sonny's silent observations of his family, as though we were watching the play through his memories. Sandra Goldmark's set design, meant to represent the Flood living room, is an empty stage framed by unadorned drab olive walls that become transparent when lit by R. Kennedy Lee, so when Rubin and Cora privately fight in the next room we can see the scary shadowy visions of grown-up conflicts overheard by a child's ears. Upstage we see a dark hallway with a tall, steep stairway. Shana Albery dresses the cast in realistic period clothes (I especially liked her modest, rural versions of flapper dresses) and on a stage void of furniture they zap attention straight to the actors, making their words and actions more vivid in Sonny's memory than the full environment.