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The Dark at the Top of the Stairs accentuates a problem visible already in William Inge's overly celebrated Picnic: it is hard to be interesting about dull, ordinary people, even if you characterize them with compassion. Picnic, of course, nearly conquered the problem by being about sex. But if the writer centers on ordinary people, living and speaking cliches; unless he injects or carefully selects force, or crisis, or some universal overtones, or even comedy, why write the play?
This is not being quite fair; there are bits of force, universals, and even good comedy in The Dark, but not enough to lift the play from competence into excellence.
The story is about a small town Oklahoma family of the 1920's. Rubin Flood is losing his job and getting to feel left behind by the world. His wife, Cora, argues with him about all the traditional things; their first act fight and third act reconciliation frame the play. They have an engaging son, Sonny, who hates people and collects pictures of movie stars, and a teen-age daughter, Reenie, who is afraid to be social. Cora's sister, Lottie, and Lottie's husband turn out to be rather joyless, too, under her veneer of exhilaration and his of complacency. By the end of the play, at least the first four characters have gone through some form of crisis and emerge somewhat better prepared for the future.
Except for Sonny's moments of inspired brathood and tantrums, the only really bright, vital character is an extremely likable boy who appears in Act II to take the reluctant Reenie to a dance. He commits suicide before Act III. Depressing as this may be, it is the strongest act in the play, and it brings into sharp focus an otherwise loosely meandering world.
The action is fully directed by Elia Kazan, whose extremely skilled hand is, if anything should be said against it, somewhat obvious. Thus the exaggerated poses of the boy toward his mother--for example, covering her body with his on the floor--are sometimes strained. But as a whole, especially in getting actors to work together, Kazan reaffirms his right to his reputation.
One of the triumphs of the show belongs to Charles Saari, the only excellent child actor since Brandon De Wilde. Despite rare roughness and lapses out of context, his intense performance of Sonny is outstanding. He pouts, squawks, broods, lunges, and captures the audience. Timmy Everett, playing the well-written role of the older young man who kills himself between the acts, is equally excellent.
Teresa Wright does as much with the role of Cora as nearly anyone could. Pat Hingle acts Rubin as solidly as he did Gooper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Eileen Heckart, as Lottie, impresses many people as magnificent--a loosely jointed, many-toned caricature actress a la Roz Russel. She is often most amusing, often overdone. As a friend of Reenie's, Evans Evans is wacky, flappery, and fun, except in her emotional scene, where she seems hollow.
Despite fine acting and interacting, however, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs is a play of moderate stature. If the rumors are correct and the play is autobiographical, William Inge's craftsmanship does not quite hide the fact that he had a fairly dull childhood.
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