Review: ‘The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs’ at Spooky Action

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Looking for something well-crafted, suspenseful, and with plenty of lingering moments of anxiety? Then head on to Spooky Action Theater’s production of The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs.

Written by Canadian playwright Carole Fréchette, and translated by John Murrell, The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs asserts itself as an interesting little enigma. It will bring special joy to those who enjoy a regular binge-watch marathon of 30-minute black-and-white Twilight Zone episodes.

Tuyet Thi Pham and Casie Platt in The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs. Photo by Tony Hitchcock.
Tuyet Thi Pham and Casie Platt in The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs. Photo by Tony Hitchcock.

Now, Fréchette is likely unknown to many a DC theatergoer. That is, unless they took in the 2012 production of Frechette’s John and Beatrice at Northern Virginia’s Hub Theatre. That production, like Spooky Action’s The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs, was directed by Helen Murray, the Hub’s Artistic Director.

According to Spooky Action Theater sources, playwright Fréchette wrote Small Room after a re-reading of the centuries-old fairy tale, Bluebeard by Charles Perrault. If you have forgotten that fairy tale that may less often be read by a parent to a child, Bluebeard is about a young woman who is warned not to do something by her husband but does so anyway.

Fréchette takes that kernel from Bluebeard and opens into a contemporary conception of what can instill fretfulness, angst, and worry in adults. While written before #MeToo, the situations and overall dread that playwright Fréchette has penned certainly connect to current times.

So, here is the synopsis of The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs, from Spooky Action: Fréchette tells “the tale of Grace, a young woman named after a princess who finds herself irresistibly drawn to a mysterious and forbidden room. She has everything – a mansion filled with lavish rooms, a maidservant (Jenny), an adoring husband (Henry) who makes no demands except one … she cannot go into the small room at the top of the stairs.” But, let’s add that the newly married young bride comes with an alpha-mother (Joyce) and an assertive sister (Anne) who add plenty to what transpires before the audience.

As smartly directed by Murray, the play unfolds as a taut family drama that becomes way more. The cast gives each character a nuanced 3-dimensionality. As Grace, Casie Platt is full of finely wrought, nervous energy. She appears insecure living a life defined under the too-close fawning by her mom (a belting Mindy Shaw), who knows how to use a cell phone but really wants a cell phone tracking device, a sister who tries to torment her (a verbally fluent Carolyn Kashner), to the too-close gaze of her well-off, new, husband (a testy Michael Kevin Darnall), who could scare the crap out of anyone with his steely demeanor and a voice that can cut through anything, and has a bag full of past secrets.

Casie Platt (center), Michael Kevin Darnall and Carolyn Kashner in The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs. Photo by Tony Hitchcock.
Casie Platt (center), Michael Kevin Darnall and Carolyn Kashner in The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs. Photo by Tony Hitchcock.

Platt moves about the intimate set space, often speaking with a sense of unease, as if she is guilty of something, even before we come to know her. She asks, “I am missing something?” to be followed with “I never met myself.” Then she begins to assert herself against her mother and sister, though perhaps only in her overheated mind, and when she begins to disregard what her new husband asks of her. What the consequences of that disregard are, is the heart of the play. I will not dare ruin it for you. But. Platt is a natural at depicting small signs of anxiety that grow large over time. (As my own aside, thinking of Grace and Henry together after making love as new husband and wife, I cannot still imagine them soundly sleeping together in each other’s arms, only with one eye open at all times).

Then there is Jenny (Tuyet Thi Pham), the servant from an unnamed Asian country, who has served Henry for years. She knows Henry, she knows the Mansion. Henry seems to totally depend on her without condescending. Is she somehow complicit in some bad things? Grace finds Jenny a nuisance at first to patronize; then to buy off with gifts of jewelry. Jenny is an important puzzle-piece in The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs. Her facial features say so much without a word uttered. An arched eyebrow, a pursed mouth. She is one who brings this riddle to Grace who turns them into a mantra, “What makes tears true?”

The Spooky Action creative team adds many a deft touch to the brain-teasing nature of The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs. Lighting designer Brittany Shemuga gives off plenty of creepy eerie touches, while Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s set design is centered on one finely crafted large handsome sturdy box fabricated with a series of milled slats allowing the audience to see inside the confined interior space. Just enough can be seen, with certain lighting effects, to make one wonder how creepy scenes can become and what other audience members may be seeing. But more so, the simple set is a believable stand-in for a 28 room mansion as Murray directs her ensemble to ramble about as if in different rooms, including the one special little room at the top of the stairs.

So, if you are ready to follow clues, and disobey a command to not do something knowing there are consequences, then Spooky Action’s The Room at the Top of the Stairs is right for you. It is a rewarding “short story” of a play with plenty of punch. I certainly pondered many a question at the final blackout. Decide what you think by seeing it. First, you have to walk down some narrow steps and then up into another world.  It’s worth it.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs plays through June 10, 2018, at Spooky Action Theater – 1810 16th St NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (800) 838-3006, or purchase them online.

Note: Director Murray had first come across Fréchette during the Canadian-Washington Theatre Partnership cultural exchange. The exchange was sponsored by the Canadian Embassy and professional theater companies in the DC metropolitan area.

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.