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The Dark At The Top Of The Stairs: I Remember It Well

April 10
12:57 PM 2007

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.

Speaking of Sonny, Cummings draws the type of natural performance you generally don't expect from a young actor; cute, but showing signs of fearful disturbance.  The evening's anchor though is Champlin who subtly conveys the terror Cora feels at not being able to fit in like all the other wives in town.  Her Cora's devotion to her children comes easy, but Champlin just barely hides her character's frustration at being an ineffective parent and wife.  Boll's Rubin, though violent and emotionally distant, is also sympathetic as an emasculated cowboy just trying as best he can to do what's good for his family.

The second of the three acts is dominated by the cracking comic timing of Michele Pawk as Cora's bossy older sister Lottie.  Full of sass and Oklahoma City sophistication, she also communicates the character's anger and hurt for being in a sexless marriage with Morris, who Jay Potter plays with a meek serenity, providing Pawk with a perfect foil.

Liz Mamana is spunky and energetic as the appropriately named Flirt, a popular girl who befriends Reenie in exchange for homework help.  Minifie is very empathetic as the frightened girl and Matt Yeager is very moving as Sammy, her Jewish blind date who briefly provides Sonny with a strong and sensitive role model before encountering anti-Semitism at the celebration.  Paul Iacono makes a fun impact in his small role as Flirt's mumbling boyfriend.

The Connelly Theatre, located on 4th Street between Avenues A & B, is not exactly the most convenient theatre to get to for non-Lower East Siders, but this wonderfully acted and interesting production is well worth the trek.

Photos by Carol Rosegg:  Top:  Donna Lynne Champlin and Michele Pawk

Center:  Donna Lynne Champlin and Jack Tartaglia

Bottom:  Patrick Boll and Donna Lynne Champlin 

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