KILLING THE PLAY YOU LOVE
By Harvey Perr
The Dark at the Top of the Stairs
now playing at the Connelly Theatre
through April 21
published April 13, 2007
I don’t know if each man kills the thing he loves, but some most certainly do. It is, at any rate, what Jack Cummings
III has done to what is arguably the best of William Inge’s four major plays – “The Dark At The Top Of The Stairs” – in the Transport
Group’s “official” 50th anniversary production of the play. He has put a lot of love and careful thought into every nuance of the play;
he has mined every word for hidden meanings; he has dotted every i and crossed every t and added a few punctuation points that Inge
never intended and would have dismayed him if he could have seen them. And, in his effort to make the audience see the greatness in the
play that he sees, he has left the play that Inge wrote gasping for air. There is little space to breathe here, and the play finally
suffocates to death in its own portentousness.
The irony is that it is the reverse of what was intended. Inge has written a darker and stronger play than his cozily
naturalistic style would suggest and is ripe for the kind of exploration Cummings is attempting, and it would have been a great triumph
for both him and for Inge if he had succeeded. Time has been unkind to Inge because his body of work seems so dedicated to the
peccadilloes of ordinary people, so much so that what might have felt like great insights at the time his plays originally
appeared have become trivialized through familiarity. Inge was less interested in how civilization was letting down the desperate
inhabitants of his personal but very authentic Midwest than he was in examining how dull and stifling their lives were and how
imprisoned they were by their own limitations, and there was more mournfulness and barely suppressed anger in his plays than most
productions even hint at.
Sexual yearning and sexual deprivation were equally palpable to Inge, so that directors have often approached his
plays as if they alone were at the heart of his work, and it is to Cummings’s credit that he doesn’t wallow in either of the two. There
are more complex forces controlling the lives of the Floods of Oklahoma – Rubin, Cora and their children Sonny and Reenie are all
equally alienated, all so self-absorbed in their own shells of loneliness that they can, through their loneliness, inflict,
unintentionally, pain upon others – as well as the lives of the friends and relatives they reach out to. A Tarkington-like whiff
of the sea changes – that may alter the lives of the central characters from without – wafts through the play’s final moments like some
clammy truth they are barely able to understand, let alone begin to wrestle with.
Cummings comes as close as any director has to a comprehension of these factors. But his approach is to literalize the
metaphor of the play’s title, to focus and isolate – and Sandra Goldmark’s set is complicit in this – the staircase from the rest of the
house; to unclutter the house of its lived-in stuffiness; and to suggest instead a barren landscape of memory, replete with the shadows
we associate not with biography but with memory. The people, all too real to Inge and written with a very vivid sense of their reality,
become shadows, too; dream-like figures forever frozen in an album of sepia-tinged images, images that linger but remain, finally,
merely images. Climax follows upon climax promising significance, but ultimately exhausting the audience with its insistent hammering.
As befits this single-minded vision, the acting is stiff and stagey, although in fairness, the stiffness of Jack Tartaglia’s Sonny –
Inge’s view of himself as a child – becomes a defining character trait. And while Michele Pawk brings a refreshing vulgarity to visiting
Aunt Lottie, she misses entirely, through misguided direction, the tightness in the spine of the woman. Only two actors come through
with any sense of authentic human behavior and the emotional range attendant upon such behavior: Matt Yeager as an ingratiating and
wonderfully sensible young cadet – one of Inge’s most memorable creations – who is cast adrift by his Jewishness and by his being
abandoned by a mother who is more interested in getting small parts in forgettable movies than in acknowledging the existence of her
bastard son, and Jay Potter as Lottie’s husband who has secrets of his own that he will never let anyone in on.
Shana Albery’s costumes, all shades of brown and grey, also fit the director’s vision, but a flash of, say, red, would
have been welcome. Inge, himself an art critic, as tuned into the drabness of his characters’ lives as he was, also knew how to provide
them with touches of color. Memory does not obliterate color, any more than it turns houses into staircases.
From the perspective of one viewer, this production compounds what have been perceived as the weaknesses of the play
in its effort to root out its strengths. But, at least, it manages to reveal that a very interesting play, infinitely worth reviving, is
lurking behind its shadows. It does the play no service, however, to put those shadows on constant display as if shadows were the total
substance of the play. The play’s last moment, in fact – rather than the one that has been tacked on – does suggest that there is also
some light at the top of the stairs, ephemeral as that light may be.