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San Francisco by Richard Connema

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs

Also see Richard's review of The Syringa Tree

The Marin Classic Theatre has opened their 2002-2003 season with the rarely produced Pulitzer Prize winning drama The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, by American playwright William Inge. This was the dramatist's last successful play. Dark was first presented at the small Music Box Theatre in New York on December 5, 1957, with a splendid cast consisting of Eileen Heckart, Pat Hingle and Teresa Wright and directed by Elia Kazan. The play ran for 468 performances. While I was working at Warner Bros, the studio purchased the play, and it was made into a film in 1960 starring Robert Preston, Dorothy McGuire, Eve Arden, Shirley Knight, and a very young Angela Lansbury. Since that time, there have been no major revivals and very few regional companies have attempted to present this dreamlike and fragile play.

I admire Marin Classic's great courage in presenting this play to their audiences. It is a touching portrait of small town life in the 1920s in a suburb of a suburb of Oklahoma City. Oil is king, but Rubin Flood (Ken Bacon) and his family are not in the parade of progress. Rubin is a traveling salesman selling horse harnesses which are rapidly becoming obsolete in this day of gas guzzling automobiles and tractors. Rubin has not adjusted to the realities of modern times.

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs follows one of American drama's prime dysfunctional families. Cora the wife (Eileen Fisher) appears to be the typical overbearing mother type who thinks she knows what is best for her husband and family. Rubin tries to compensate for his own lack of self esteem by cheating on his wife with another woman in another town (the other woman is talked about in the play, but never shown). There is the teenage daughter Rennie (Sandra Allen) who is something of a wallflower since none of the boys ever ask her to dance at the school dances, and the young son Sonny (Keith White) who is always being picked on at school for being a “mama’s boy.” His only friends are photographs of silent film movie stars. This is not a happy camper family. To make matters worse, the mother can’t even spare a nickel for the movie loving boy to go to the local “picture show.”

There are other characters who come into their lives, including the know-it-all talkative aunt Lottie (Kristine Ann Lowry) and her spineless husband Morris (Martin Cate) whose young military school teenage son Sammy (Dylan Saunders) becomes a “blind date” for Rennie at a school dance. His problem is that he is Jewish (half Jewish according to him) and living in an all Christian environment in Oklahoma. He is also a very lonely boy and borders on suicidal.

I think William Inge summed up his play best by saying that the fear of “the dark at the top of the stairs” is meant to be symbolic of the characters' inner demons, a fact that the playwright drives home constantly in this bittersweet drama.

The main problem with this production is the loss of intimacy on the strange Pullman car-like stage. The Playhouse Theatre is like some of the television studios on Warner’s Burbank lot and is not conducive to intimate theater. The audience sits in a long bleacher-like section and looks down on a wide stage. On the Warners lot you would put in three separate sets so that sitcom cameras could follow the actors. That’s great for television but not for live theater. The Flood’s living room extends completely across the set, and the actors have to do a lot of extra movement since the action of the play takes place at various parts of the stage. If you are in the left section, you have to look over to the extreme right to see and hear what is going on. It would have been better if they could have blocked off the extreme right and left sides and presented the play in the middle. However, given the constraints of this stage, the direction by Artie Gilbert is good.

Some of the uneven acting I saw may have been due to opening night jitters. Eileen Fisher, who plays the key role as the mother, tends to race her lines. She shows very little emotion when her husband becomes angry in some of the scenes. Ken Bacon gives a good account of himself as the husband. He has had a lot of stage experience and his Oklahoman accent is good. Marjorie Rose Taylor as Rennie’s friend Flirt Conroy is very good. She flirts with everyone on the stage and is perfect as a little teaser, '20s style.

Several of the strong and most memorable scenes occur in the second act but they need experienced actors to pull them off. Kristine Ann Lowry as Aunt Lottie takes a little time to warm up to her character, but she gets into the swing of things when she talks about silent films stars and how the Catholics were hiding guns in the basement of their churches to overthrow the government. She is excellent when she finally breaks down to tell her sister that she is stuck in a loveless marriage with a spineless husband.

There is also a classic speech in the second act that many actors use when they are auditioning for a part in a straight play. It is about the young Jewish cadet who speaks of his lonely existence and starts with “I always worry that maybe people aren’t going to like me.” Dylan Saunder, who is a high school student, has had limited theater experience but does a fairly good job with the pathos needed for this monologue. As this play continues its run, he should be able get a hold on this character and do a very good monologue. He does have excellent stage presence and a good speaking voice.

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs plays at the Playhouse at 27 Kensington Road, San Anselmo, through November 3. Tickets can be obtained by call 415-892-8551 or visiting www.MCTheatre.com.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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