Stages

Review: Eclipse’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs Dramatizes Everyone’s Fears in 1920s Oklahoma

Daley and Hicks as Rubin and Cora. Photo by Scott Dray.

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, a 1957 play by William Inge, is set in a small town in 1920s Oklahoma. The play tells the story of the Flood family—Cora and Rubin and their two children—as they navigate economic disruption, class distinctions, racism and anti-Semitism. Eclipse Theatre’s production, directed by Jerrell L. Henderson, is a complex human story but unfortunately uneven in performance and staging.

Rubin (Chris Daley) is leaving for the week; he sells harnesses to farmers. Cora (Aneisa Hicks) wishes he would spend more time at home with her; she’s nervous about their marriage and their finances and she’s concerned that the children don’t have enough attention from their father. Reenie (Destini Huston) is a shy, bookish 16-year-old and Sonny (James Leonardi) is 10 and preoccupied with his movie-star photo album. He’s also bullied by other schoolboys.

Rubin and Cora fight; he hits her and storms out. A few days later, Cora’s sister Lottie (Sarah-Lucy Hill) and her dentist husband Morris (John Arthur Lewis) visit from Oklahoma City. Cora is convinced that Rubin has left for good and she wants to move to the city with the children to start over.

Tonight is an important night for Reenie. She has a blind date to attend a party with a military school cadet from California named Sammy; she worries because he’s Jewish. Cora tries to reassure her that he’s just another boy but painfully shy Reenie is looking for an excuse not to go to the party. When her bubbly friend Flirt (Hilary Schwartz) arrives with their two dates, Sammy (Zachery Wagner) charms the whole family, including Reenie (and her brother). The four go off to the party, which turns out to have a tragic result.

The “dark” in the play’s title is symbolized throughout. Sonny is afraid of the dark and especially of the unlighted landing at the top of the stairs. But the real symbolism of “the dark at the top of the stairs” is fear of the future and fear of change, technological and otherwise. All the characters suffer from some form of psychological trauma. When Rubin returns to apologize to Cora, they have a serious discussion about their lives. He has lost his job; harness sales have declined because people are buying automobiles. They’re living in an oil boom region. He knows he has to develop new skills in a new industry—oil field equipment. Cora fears for her children’s lives and worries every time they leave the house. Sonny is too sensitive and Reenie is too shy. Cora fears for her marriage because of Rubin’s travels and the attractive widow who flirts with him. Sammy is homeless because his movie-star mother doesn’t have room for him. After two-plus hours of Oklahoma angst, the almost-happy ending seems paradoxical.

Henderson’s direction is capable but most of the performances by his cast of nine are undistinguished. Huston and Hicks are sincere and believable as the shy teenager and her fearful mother and Wagner shines in his one scene as Sammy. Furthermore, there seem to be problems with the sound system in the third floor studio at the Athenaeum (although I have not noticed this in the many previous shows I have seen there). The result is erratic aural performances by a few of the actors.

Samantha Rausch’s set design, supported by Rachel Lambert’s props, create a perfect 1920s middle-class home. Caitlin McLeod’s costume work results in Reenie’s and Flirt’s party dresses and daytime dresses for Cora and Lottie.

Henderson’s casting of Hicks, an African American, as Cora isn’t just an example of nontraditional casting. Tulsa, Oklahoma, was the site of a tragic “race massacre” in 1921, when white rioters looted and burned an affluent African-American business distinct, killing about 300 people. In his director’s notes, Henderson describes how placing an emphasis on race enables a “heightened understanding of Cora’s overwhelming need to protect and Rubin’s struggle between his genuine love for his family and his need to escape.”

The 1957 Broadway production of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs earned a Tony nomination for best play. The script was turned into a film of the same name in 1960. This is the final production of Eclipse’s season devoted to William Inge. The other two plays were Natural Affection and Bus Stop. Inge is also the author of Picnic and Come Back, Little Sheba as well as other plays, screenplays and novels.

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs by Eclipse Theatre Company continues at the Athenaeum, 2936 N. Southport, through December 16. Tickets are $25-$35.

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