The Dark at the Top of the Stairs
American Theater Company. By William Inge. Dir. Damon Kiely. With Cheryl Graeff, Tim Decker.
The “dark” in Dark represents, among other things, one family’s gnawing fears and demons. By so firmly pressing a light-comedy stamp on Inge’s autobiographical drama, director Kiely in effect ensures that, in the author’s dark hallway, a night-light is perpetually kept on. ATC’s respectable production offers much to appreciate, most of all the exchanges between lonely housewife Cora (Graeff) and her salesman husband, Rubin (Decker). Graeff has a pleasant stage presence, but when she shares the stage with Decker, she does more than simply please. The two poignantly embody Inge’s sharp take on marriage: A minor spat—one over the cost of a daughter’s dress—becomes an ugly, epic, I-never-shoulda-married-you row; reconciliation moves lightning-quick to recrimination, and back again.
Other actors hit some nice notes, especially Dawn Bach as Cora’s chatty sis Lottie, talking to fill the void. But it’s that emptiness behind the facade that gets patched over when Inge’s subtext, as with the romance between the doting mom and her fey son, becomes sur-text. The design similarly brings too much to the surface: Jared Moore’s lighting announces almost every tonal shift, while Tom Burch’s set—mostly one big wallpapered wall—pushes most interactions to the fore. Inge weaves many thematic threads: the dad’s obsolescence as a symbol of rugged American masculinity, the pop-Freudian mother-father-son triangle, the anti-Semitism (the painfully shy daughter dates a Jewish boy, to a tragic end). To sidestep soap opera, Inge’s ideas need a more nuanced delineation; less light would shed more light.—Novid Parsi