You have heard this story before, but each time it comes at you in a different way, offering new anxieties and insights in equal measure. In Bluebeard, the beautiful young wife is given the keys to Bluebeard’s magnificent castle but is warned not to enter a particular underground chamber. Of course, she can think of nothing else. And when she finally violates her husband’s sanction, she discovers — the rotting corpses of his prior wives, hacked to bits. Or how about Jane Eyre, who on the eve of marrying Mr. Rochester and becoming the mistress of his fabulous domain, discovers that his mad first wife has been confined to a secret room in his mansion? Or — this:
“The LORD God gave the man this order: You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. From that tree you shall not eat; when you eat from it you shall die.” (Genesis 2: 16-17).
Despite all restrictions, here comes that curious monkey, homo sapiens, and enters that chamber, finds that hidden room, eats that apple, and, in The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs, enters the small room, flashlight in hand, ready to face down the horrors within. Is it a coincidence that in each case the defiant explorer is a woman? Or is it the teaching of our storytelling that women have a higher-stakes investment in the truth; that where men can sometime satisfy themselves with comfortable papered-over versions of reality, lies create an unsustainably toxic environment for women?
To get to The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs you must go to a small room at the bottom of the stairs at Spooky Action, and there watch Helen R. Murray’s unfussy presentation of Carole Fréchette’s cautionary story. After a whirlwind courtship, the airy and romantic Grace (Casie Platt) has agreed to marry Henry (Michael Kevin Darnall), a multimillionaire investor. Grace’s down-to-earth older sister Anne (Carolyn Kashner) ticks off the reasons the wedding shouldn’t take place — Grace met Henry only fifty-six days ago; she knows nothing about Henry’s work; she doesn’t even know whether Henry was married before (he was; three times; as it turns out) — but it doesn’t matter to Grace. She has hit the jackpot. And her mother Joyce (Mindy Shaw) is even more delighted, if possible; her daughter is going to live the life that Joyce had always wanted to live.
In acquiring Henry, it appears that Grace will also acquire his 28-room house, which includes two sitting rooms, ten guest rooms, an Olympic-sized pool, and a sea-blue bathroom to match her eyes. Or, I should say, 27 rooms in his 28-room house, as the 28th, at the end of a narrow corridor reachable only by a set of hidden stairs, is prohibited, without explanation, to her. And, from the very moment the play opens, entry to that room is the only thing she wants.
Murray doesn’t create a 28-room mansion within the confines of Spooky Action’s space. Instead, she creates it in our minds, through text and gesture, getting her actors to move through small spaces in a way that suggests they are moving through large spaces. Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s set is a single room, and suggests that the forbidden space is somewhere close to the center, which the characters can reach only by circling around the outer edges of the stage. If you’ve ever seen a well-produced version of Doug Wright’s Wildwood Park, in which the action proceeds on a bare stage representing a mansion, this may remind you of that.
And within that space, there is only Grace, Henry, and Henry’s mysterious maid Jenny (Tuyet Thi Pham), except for a brief moment when mom appears at the mansion. Anne is off on a life-saving mission elsewhere, and she and mom exist primarily on the phone or as memories — or arguments — in Grace’s mind.
The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs
closes June 10, 2018
Details and tickets
What is present and real for Grace is the conflict. Does she keep her promise to her husband, forget about the hidden room, and lead a life of pampered luxury at the hands of the besotted Henry, as her mother suggests? Or does she risk everything because she has to know? I think you know the answer. But there are questions even after the doorknob is turned; what she sees, what she believes she sees, what she knows, what she does.
Grace is an unlovable heroine; small-minded, self-indulgent, shallow, immature, whiny. She is spoiled and not terribly authentic; her clumsy attempts to bribe Jenny into participating in her cover-up show an appalling insensitivity. (Jenny has bigger fish to fry). I never bought that she truly loved Henry, although I’m not sure that the text required her to. Platt’s challenge is to make Grace an engaging protagonist notwithstanding all of these flaws; if Grace is too much of a zero, after all, we won’t care what happens to her.
Platt succeeds by ratcheting up the tension of Grace’s dilemma, and thus making her human to us. This is the dilemma which touches us all: should we open our spouse’s e-mail, and see that he’s been cheating on us? Should we read the letter to the boss, misdelivered to us, which might show that she’s been stealing from the company? Should we subpoena the President’s private papers, which might show that his election was illegitimate and throw the whole country into turmoil? Should we isolate the Higgs Boson? Should we develop artificial general intelligence? The urgency of this dilemma radiates from Platt every moment she is on stage: she cannot bear the thought of losing her Good Thing, but she is compelled to know the truth. While giving full voice to Grace’s many unattractive characteristics, Platt manages to put her human side front and center, so that we are with her throughout. While Grace is often inauthentic, Platt never is.
To a certain extent, Joyce and Anne are emblematic characters — Grace’s bad and good angels — but Shaw and Kashner never permit them to be anything but real. Joyce’s failed dreams animate her toxic motherly advice, and she swaddles her envy in a cloak of love. And yet Shaw, who did excellent work in Oblivion and does even better work here, makes Joyce a very human character, who will have her delusions if she cannot have her dreams. Kashner establishes the play’s ballast, asking Grace the questions she should have asked herself (and also the audience’s questions). Grace and Joyce consider Anne the more pedestrian daughter: less imaginative, less brilliant, earthbound. As Kashner plays her, Anne is not that, but she is the sort of person who has been treated as though she was, and is thus impatient, aggressive, a truth-teller with an instinctive hatred of cant and hypocrisy. Fréchette occasionally gives her some clunky didactic lines, but in Kashner’s recitation they never sound unnatural or forced.
“Certainly, we can see Grace as a woman oppressed by her domineering husband, but this is not at all what interested me,” Fréchette has written. “What I was drawn to from the beginning is the ‘forbidden’ represented by the closed door, and the desire to enter it.” In playing Henry, Darnall has obviously taken this interpretation to heart. He has made Henry a man whose huge house matches a huge temperament, and who is equal part grand (and expensive) declarations of love and explosive howls of distress. He is a big man, but he is not a monster. There are a limited number of actors who carry such largeness with them; Darnall is one of them.
If Grace is one fulcrum of the play — the “yes” fulcrum, impulsive and inquisitive — Jenny is the “no” fulcrum, calculating and silent, and Pham plays her perfectly. Grace needs to fool herself if she is to avoid facing the consequences of her choice, and Jenny permits her to do so without saying a word. Of course, she has dialogue, but Pham says more with her face than she does with the text, and thus makes Jenny the perfect facilitator of Grace’s deepening woe.
This is, to be short, a splendid production of a beautifully-crafted play which helps us confront a question as old as the one presented by the snake in the Garden of Eden. Here, as there, redemption lies in taking the fallen path.
The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs by Carole Fréchette. Directed by Helen R. Murray, assisted by Aria Velz. Featuring Casie Platt, Mindy Shaw, Carolyn Kashner, Michael Kevin Darnall, and Tuyet Thi Pham. Lighting design by Brittany Shemuga . Sound design by David Crandall . Set design by Jonathan Dahm Robertson . Costume design by Amy MacDonald . Props design by Amy Kellett . Katie Bücher is the stage manager . Produced by Spooky Action Theater . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.