Writer: William Inge
Director: Lisa Forrell
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
What a versatile space the B2 studio at the Belgrade is! Opening in 2007 as part of the theatre’s refurbishment, its bare concrete walls and utilitarian construction really enhance the productions in there. The Dark at the Top of the Stairs is no exception. The atmosphere of the Flood home in 1920s Oklahoma is captured immediately as we enter to see the set representing the living area of their home. It’s relatively sparsely furnished – a table, some chairs, a piano – but is dominated by a long staircase that ascends high into a dark space. The staircase is used at several points for superb dramatic effect, the whole a testament to the design of Ruari Murchison.
The story follows the Flood family in changing times. Cora and Rubin have a stormy, passionate relationship. Both however keenly feel that they are underdogs in the oil-wealthy town in which they live. Rubin is a travelling salesman in harness, leather goods for horses, and is frequently absent. They have two children: the elder, the pretty 16 year old Reenie, who, though academically and musically gifted, lacks in confidence; the younger, Sonny, a childish boy, bullied because he prefers the movies to playing boyish games. The play opens with Rubin leaving on a selling trip and Cora secretly buying an expensive dress for Reenie to attend a party with the local nouveau riche at the country club. Rubin learns of this, and in his anger strikes Cora and storms out threatening never to return, witnessed by the children. Cora invites her childless sister, Lottie, sure she’ll be supportive, who seems to have made a much better fist of her life, married as she is to a prominent dentist, Morris, in Oklahoma City.
This is a time when racism and anti-semitism were the norm and hardly commented upon, so when the family learn that Reenie’s blind date for the party is Jewish, there is considerable concern. In fact, Sammy wins over all their hearts: a more wholesome boy it’s difficult to imagine, despite living apart from his mother, an aspiring movie actress who keeps his existence quiet. He even tells us that he doesn’t really mind being Jewish.
The moral of the story seems to be “Count Your Blessings”. All that we thought we understood about Cora, Rubin, Lottie, Morris, the children and their guests is swiftly turned upside down as we see lives unravel. There is a happy ending of sorts, but not until after tragedy has struck.
Written in 1957, the semi-autobiographical (the character of Sonny is thought to be based on him) The Dark at the Top of the Stairs is widely considered to be William Inge’s masterpiece, and deservedly so. He draws us into the world of the Floods with simple but honest dialogue. He doesn’t shy away from the tensions within the family and the town, nor the very real difficulties being faced by the Floods. Lisa Forrell’s direction ensures the characters are fully three-dimensional and believable throughout. Accents may occasionally slip, but this is of no matter: the dramatic quality of the performances is stunning. In particular, Olivia Vinall’s Reenie is quite enchanting, her scene on the staircase after the party a masterclass in depicting complex emotions. Philip Labey brings a childlike quality to Sonny, so we indulge him, even in his tantrums. And Asher Amis’ short scene as Sammy shows his vulnerability and good nature, setting up the second half.
But it is the central contrast between the sisters’ lives and marriages, the apparently hard-done-by Cora (Caroline Faber) and her more comfortable sister, Lottie, (Jessica Martin), that is at the heart of the production. In contrasting them, it offers no answers, only holds them up for us to compare and judge who has the better deal.
The programme tells us this is a play unseen for a generation; on this evidence, it certainly deserves to be seen more.
Runs until 10 November
Picture: Robert Day