BWW Review: Spooky Action Theater's THE SMALL ROOM AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS
Spooky Action Theater is good about seeking out interesting works from unusual sources. Their latest is from Carole Fréchette, an award-winning Canadian playwright whose work has only sporadically been produced in the states.
"The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs" has a premise so simple it would make a good episode of "The Twilight Zone" or contemporary horror film.
It involves a woman named Grace, who, after a whirlwind romance with a man named Henry, is about to marry and live in his 26-room mansion, and luxuriate in every part of it except for one place: the mysterious room at the top of the stairs at the end of a long hallway.
She is to never, never, never go in there.
Well fine. Except she can't stop thinking about it, and eventually defies his rule and goes in.
Set in the modern day, it has its basis in the fairy tale called "Bluebeard," which has a bloodier basis (the husband had killed and stored his previous wives in the room). There is direct reference to that more than once. But Fréchette goes deeper once she goes into the room, into Grace's own deep fears and psyche and the story gets more deeply psychological than its simple set-up would indicate.
That doesn't mean that director Helen R. Murray throws in some horror-movie jolts here and there, largely courtesy of the sudden appearances of the mysterious, lurking servant Jenny (Tuyet Thi Pham).
Casie Platt is quite good as Grace, and runs the gamut from glee at her new love to rage at her nagging sister and mother and a kind of psychic breakdown inside the small room. Mindy Shaw is just right as the mother who seems to prefer the daughter who married successfully; Carolyn Kashner strong as the sister who is skeptical of the whirlwind nature of the romance and the odd request of the new husband.
Michael Kevin Darnall is completely convincing as the menacing Henry, down to the three piece suit and curls atop his head.
"The Small Room" is narrated in real time, as if all the characters are living out a dream, and often characters who are not in the scene stand nearby to comment on the proceedings with their expressions. If it seems to go on a little long, it's only because "The Twilight Zone" was only a half hour long.
Jonathan Dahm Robertson's set places the crucial small room in the center of the Spooky Action theater (reconfigured to be in-the-round). Its platform of slats illuminates from underneath once she musters the courage to go up into it. Another trick of the light neutralizes the space's magic - did it occur at all?
Performed without an intermission to keep the tension taut, "The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs" points to hidden-away areas that can't quite be pinpointed by a mansion's blueprint and leaves a lingering impression psychological than it would have had it turned out to be a mere horror story.
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Photo credit: Tuyet Thi Pham and Casie Platt in "The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs" at Spooky Action Theatre. Photo by Tony Hitchcock.
"The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs" continues through June 10 at Spooky Action Theater, performing at the Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St. NW. For tickets call 202-248-0301 or go online.