Donna Lynne Champlin and Jack Tartaglia inThe Dark at the Top of the Stairs(© Carol Rosegg)
Donna Lynne Champlin and Jack Tartaglia in
The Dark at the Top of the Stairs
(© Carol Rosegg)
The theater can't thrive on revivals alone, but a strong production of a worthy old play is certainly preferable to an iffy production of a mediocre new one. Attention must be paid to the Transport Group's staging of William Inge's The Dark at the Top of the Stairs because (1) the acting is superb, even if the direction is odd; and (2) though the play seems to have fallen into disfavor over the decades since its Broadway bow in 1957, it proves to be a minor masterpiece.

Set in Oklahoma in the 1920s, this is Inge's semi-autobiographical tale of a family in crisis. Rubin Flood, a traveling salesman at odds with his loving but nagging wife, Cora, leaves town in Act I and doesn't return till the end of Act III. Their shy daughter Reenie anxiously prepares to attend her first dance, while her little brother Sonny worships female movie stars and shows other stereotypical signs of turning out to be gay. Also on hand are Cora's blunt sister, Lottie, and her man-of-few-words husband, Morris; Reenie's friend, the accurately named Flirt Conroy; and Punky Givens and Sammy Goldenbaum, two young men from a military academy who take Reenie and Flirt to the dance.

Like Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie and several other works by Inge, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs is a play in which domestic troubles carry nearly cosmic emotional import. It's intended to be an ultra-naturalistic slice of life, yet Transport Group artistic director Jack Cummings III has chosen to give us a "concept" production in which scrims are used instead of flats and there is an almost complete lack of furniture and props.

Further, though the acting style is appropriately realistic for the most part, Cummings has instructed the cast to deliver some of the dialogue while facing straight out front. Contrary to the stage directions, the first scene between Rubin and Cora is heard in voiceover as young Sonny wanders alone on stage; and Cummings has interpolated another voiceover sequence as a coda to the final act, with lines from various characters running through Sonny's mind. (Remember Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in the closing moments of Gone With the Wind? It's the same idea -- but it's not in the script.)

Why it was felt that this piece needed a revisionist touch is hard to fathom. When directors offer eccentric stagings of oft-revived plays or musicals, we can calm our irritation by recalling the three or four previous, superior stagings we saw and looking forward to the next. But, given that the Transport Group effort is billed as "the official 50th anniversary production" of the rarely seen Dark at the Top of the Stairs, one might have expected a far more traditional approach to the material. And, by the way, one would have hoped for better pacing; including its two 10-minute intermissions, this show runs very close to three hours.

All of that said, Cummings deserves high praise for assembling the most prodigiously talented cast imaginable. Donna Lynne Champlin and Michele Pawk, who so memorably appeared as daughter and mother in Hollywood Arms on Broadway, here exhibit equally strong chemistry as (respectively) sisters Cora and Lottie. The always wonderful Champlin is an expert at communicating subtext without playing it on the top, while the amazing Pawk manages several transitions from comedy to drama and back again with the utmost skill. To watch these two perform is a privilege.

As Rubin, Patrick Boll commands the stage with his imposing physique (he looks to be about 6'5") and his sharply etched portrait of a dissatisfied fellow who's struggling to do right by his family. Jay Potter is perfect as the cowed Morris Lacey. Liz Mamana, who bears a striking resemblance to Parker Posey in both looks and manner, brightens the proceedings every time she enters in the role of Flirt. Matt Yeager gives a deeply moving performance as the golden-hearted, ill-fated Sammy, while Paul Iacono is hilarious as the mumbling Punky. Colby Minifie is touching as Reenie, and the adorable Jack Tartaglia is such a natural as Sonny that the audience was buzzing about him during both intermissions.

In line with the director's overall concept, Sandra Goldmark's scenic design and R. Lee Kennedy's lighting are aggressively anti-realistic to the point where they tend to distract from rather than enhance the text. On the plus side, Shana Albery's costumes and Paul Huntley's wigs are just what you'd hope to see in a traditional production. No such label can be applied to this revival -- but, really, you've got to see it anyway. Acting of this caliber doesn't come along very often, and it should not be missed when it does.

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[Ed. Note: The Transport Group has scheduled talkbacks to follow two upcoming performances. On Thursday, April 12, there will be a discussion with William Inge scholars Jeff Johnson and Ralph Voss, moderated by Jack Cummings III. And on Monday, April 16, actress Shirley Knight -- who received an Academy Award nomination for her performance as Reenie in the film version of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs -- will headline a panel of artists who have worked on Inge plays.]