Magic Time!: ‘The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs’ at Spooky Action Theatre

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The mystery at the center of this adroit drama keeps getting mysteriouser and mysteriouser: What’s in the small room at the top of the stairs?

Playwright Carole Fréchette has crafted a cagey psychological suspense story, a modern retelling of a 300-year-old French folktale about a young woman who is told by her husband she can open all the doors in the castle except one.

So of course, just as we know a gun introduced in a play is going to go off, we know the door to this forbidden small room is going to be opened. And sure enough, it is.

Read David Siegel’s DC Metro Theater Arts review.

The young woman, a new bride named Grace, is kept like a privileged princess on a fairytale estate. Her adoring and superwealthy husband Henry has built a 28-room mansion, which he has bestowed upon her on one condition: that she leave that small room alone. Curiosity gets the best of Grace, she disobeys Henry, she sets foot into the small room, he finds out—at which point the real menace begins.

Cassie Platt as Grace in The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs. Photo by Tony Hitchcock.

Michael Kevin Darnall creates an indelibly creepy portrait of an oleaginous Henry. Cassie Platt makes Grace’s mettle credible as we watch afraid for where her foolhardy meddling will lead. So one might think this is a scary story about a beautiful princess finding out that her handsome prince charming has a hidden dark side and is actually out to harm her.

But no, that’s not where the playwright wants our minds to go. According to Fréchette, she intended this play to be about what drives Grace, not what drives Henry:

Certainly, we can see Grace as a woman oppressed by her domineering husband, but that is not all that interested me. What I was drawn to from the beginning is the “forbidden,” represented by the closed door, and the desire to enter it…. The conflict I wanted to explore was not so much about the conflict between Grace and her husband, but the more painful one, her own conflict. Grace is divided between desire to live in the comfort offered by the man she loves and her need to put herself in danger to confront a mystery and the truth.

Much as Fréchette might want this script to be more about Grace’s facing down her fear of the abstract unknown than about her relationship to a controlling man she has good reason to be afraid of, there is a palpable tension in the play between those two dramatic arcs. Whose story is being told? hers or his? I think it may be more his than hers. I say this not to dispute the playwright’s interpretation of her own work but to suggest that there is more far-reaching meaning going on in Fréchette play than she may have meant.

Cassie Platt as Grace and Michael Kevin Darnall as Henry in The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs. Photo by Tony Hitchcock..

There’s a subtext whispering through Small Room: the common notion that what a woman doesn’t know about her man won’t hurt her. If he keeps some dark part of his life cabined off from her, compartmentalized even from himself, so what? What harm is there? She never has to know. Only if she finds out his secret, only if she trespasses that mancave minefield in his mind, will his psyche be endangered and his anger aroused.

I think that’s what’s really going on in The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs. It’s a profound parable about the sexual politics of secret keeping. And as such, it’s a brilliantly terrifying horror story, even more unsettling than Spooky Action has let on.

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.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.