Chicago Theater Review: THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS (Eclipse Theatre Company)

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by Lawrence Bommer on November 21, 2018

in Theater-Chicago

INGE’S NOISY DESPERATION

Mission accomplished: Eclipse Theatre Company characteristically concludes its season with a play that wears a big heart on an open sleeve. The troupe, which cultivates one playwright per year, delivers a vintage family saga for the all-Inge year — a sad tale of thwarted affection and canceled happiness. Following Natural Affection and Bus Stop, Eclipse presents William Inge’s two-act domestic drama, a 150-minute casebook study in the forces that fracture a family. Its original name was Farther off from Heaven: That’s just where and how we find these dislocated survivors.

Produced in 1957 (and becoming a film in 1960), The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, like its cryptic title, is a bittersweet look at the Flood family. In 1922 this four-person clan are living marginally in a small town outside Oklahoma City during an oil boom that has divided their once-cohesive town into have and have-nots.

Living on the edge is where they’ve always been. Love, when it comes, is as much an occupational hazard as a comfortable choice to harness happiness. The play trades in simple struggles and unacknowledged turning points. They’re potentially the stuff of tragedy but in this world not even sorrows grow to greatness.

Always on the road for better or worse, the father Rubin Flood (Chris Daley) is a traveling salesman for a harness firm — a perilous profession with the advent of the automobile. Rubin has a roving eye and spirit too. Agonizing over her husband’s philandering and occasional abuse across 17 years, his homebody wife Cora (Aneisa Hicks) is pointlessly protective and deeply devoted. Cora also wants to take off and move in with her sister Lottie (Sarah-Lucy Hill) in the big city. Chirpy with anti-Catholic conspiracies, Lottie is married without children or much passion to a dull dentist (John Arthur Lewis) with his own drifting desires. Basically mired in a marital ceasefire, Lottie’s love life offers nothing for Cora to envy or emulate.

Cora’s children seek their own escapes: 10-year-old Sonny (James Leonardi), perhaps the gay author’s surrogate, is a stubborn and insecure dreamer, a victim of school bullies whose chief joy is his beloved photo album of Hollywood stars. Certain that no one loves him, he wants to run off to Hollywood and pal around with Fatty Arbuckle. Sonny’s shy 16-year-old sister Reenie (Destini Huston) is only happy playing Chopin or hiding in the library. When Cora buys her a fancy dress to build her confidence and encourage her to meet new friends, the supposed extravagance triggers a climactic financial squabble that separates the parents.

The friends Reenie meets aren’t exactly calculated to lift her loneliness: These are the amiable and extroverted Flirt Conroy (Hllary Schwartz) and two military-academy cadets: dorky Punky Givens (Tony Rossi) and a sweet Jewish boy named Sammy Goldenbaum (Zachery Wagner). Sammy will be Reenie’s escort to a party that turns out terrible.

As he depicts both siblings, Inge, a very reluctant bearer of bad tidings, employs well-textured compassion to chronicle the disappointments by which the younger generation perversely imitate their elders.

Whatever joy the Floods manage to claw out by the end is completely conditional, perhaps a trick of the light like the title itself. Inge’s “happy ending” literally dispels that darkness as the Floods head up their stairs.

Having tasted their vulnerabilities in Jerrell L. Henderson’s caretaker staging, we can only wish them well. All nine performances come from the inside out, fully steeped in their characters’ crises. Samantha Rausch’s period-perfect setting is absolutely accurate to prairie life in the not-so-roaring 20s. Nothing in her richly detailed parlor seems out of place or time.

The director’s one questionable choice is to make the Floods a bi-racial family living in rural Oklahoma almost a century ago — hardly a hotbed of tolerance or equality. No question, Inge’s script bitterly conveys the cruelty of small-town snobbery and, especially, anti-Semitism. But it does not address the ravages of racism. Given Eclipse’s un-colorblind casting, the plot’s failure to engage those differences seems retrograde when it’s simply unintended.

In any case the heartbreak that Inge exposes is universal. It can only be diminished by singling out suffering. As D.H. Lawrence said, “Never trust the teller — trust the tale.”

photos by Scott Dray

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs
Eclipse Theatre Company
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sat & Sun at 2
ends on December 16, 2018
for tickets, call 773.935.6875 or visit Eclipse

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment }

Nikki Smith November 21, 2018 at 12:45 pm

Your review are always so well written, Mr. Bommer. Thanks.

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