Stairs to Transcendence

A William Inge classic gets a 21st-century makeover

In Transport Group's stunning new production of William Inge's 1957 work, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, the central image is, inevitably, the staircase that plays the title role, you might say, in Inge's drama. But director Jack Cummings III and set designer Sandra Goldmark, having already demonstrated, with last fall's All the Way Home, their gift for stripping naturalism to its bare bones, move a giant step further here: The staircase, framed by a gauzy portal of scrim, is the stage's one solid element. No doors, no walls, no other furniture except a piano, occasionally visible behind the scrim upstage right. Even the people, in Cummings's handling of this melancholic, death- suffused memory play, seem evanescent, drifting into and out of focus as they leave the forestage, often in midsentence, to cross behind the scrim and vanish, sometimes while still speaking, at its outer edges.

That actors should put up with such outrageous handling, especially in a beefy, square-cut, old-style Broadway play like this, can be explained by one simple fact: Cummings understands. He has not only given an elegantly spare, contemporary feel to a work that in other hands might have seemed heavy and archaic, but he has infused it, through his cast, with a gorgeously sculpted emotionality that recalls, not inappositely, Elia Kazan, who directed the original production of Inge's play a half-century ago. If the production's look suggests 21st-century minimalism, the richly nuanced array of unspoken feelings that Cummings's actors supply evokes the Actors Studio style at its 1950s best, newly toned up for a more straightforward time.

First produced in 1947 under the title Farther Off From Heaven, The Dark was actually Inge's first play, presumably reworked with Kazan's guidance. While its predecessors have all been revived, with mixed results, this one, which has puzzlingly been left untouched, comes off as the best of the lot, partly because half a century has reaffirmed the truth of its social context. In the 1950s, this was a play about neurasthenia, sexual frustration, and overmothered children. But the cruel world in which Inge sets his unhappy Flood family, an Oklahoma oil-boom town in the mid-1920s, rings true in 2007 with a sharpness that the comfy 1950s never noticed. Nouveau-riche snobbery toward former friends; stupid bigotries about Catholics and Jews; people made jobless by technological change; a culture fixated on media celebrities—for an "inner-directed" story about one unhappy couple and its two maladjusted kids, the play carries, lightly, an astonishing weight of real-world material. If Inge occasionally leans toward preaching about it, part of the subtlety of Cummings's production lies in his gift for making the preachments come from the characters' inner needs.

Gorgeously sculpted emotion: Jack Tartaglia and Donna Lynne Champlin
Carol Rosegg
Gorgeously sculpted emotion: Jack Tartaglia and Donna Lynne Champlin

Details

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs
By William Inge
Connelly Theatre
220 East 4th Street
212-352-3101

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The results shine, particularly when Donna Lynne Champlin and Patrick Boll, as Cora and Rubin Flood, engage in their scenes of loving warfare. Boll played a similar but gentler character in All the Way Home; the difference attests to his growing range and power as an actor. Champlin's Cora—dowdy, careworn, desperate, and passionate—matches him nuance for nuance. Michele Pawk as Cora's defensively boisterous sister, Jay Potter as her taciturn husband, and Matt Yeager as the visitor whose advent triggers the family crisis, add their strong presences. And again, as in All the Way Home, Cummings has gotten a great performance from a child, 10-year-old Jack Tartaglia. But this is no surprise: He has made this story of anomie and social dislocation seem rich with family feeling.

 
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