In this Oklahoman oil-town, it’s the “99 percent” who are rich. The Flood family, part of the “one percent,” are wealthy in other ways besides oil-money. They are the ones who pitch their tents and roll out their sleeping bags for a difficult and poignant occupancy against an affluent bank of memories.
West Chester University’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs is turned upside down when director Leonard Kelly remodels the Flood family home. This time, there is no staircase. We’ve already arrived to the dark at the top.
Inge’s language remains, bare rafters over the attic through which now-30-year-old Sonny Flood (Benjamin Shaw) cautiously steps. What lies about him is a collection of deposited memories waiting to be withdrawn. What appear to be treasures, though, must not be mistaken for payments overdue. Time and again, this house is at risk of foreclosure.
While housewife Cora (Melanie Whelan) nags her family to invest their meager earnings, husband Rubin (Christopher Malloy) chomps on the bit harnessing him to his family as he bucks and struggles to make money enough for the family to have nice things.
The investments Cora wants her family to make, however, are not a $2,000 inheritance or an earned five dollars for a successful recitation. Her investments are made in family. And when Sonny learns to cope with the loss of a model big-brother, he must decide if he will be his own man or not. The Flood’s 17 years of marriage have seen Rubin bolt away from his family, only to come back to the paddock.
Their American dream transcends nation, region, or state, and instead, attempts to crack the safe of Sonny’s mind. But the locks prove difficult.
Sonny’s strongest pains are distant and hollow. The taunts of the neighborhood boys echo among the rafters, spurring only the parents to action. When the pain of an onstage argument between them is too violent for Sonny, his mind moves them offstage, where they are barely perceptible. Even onstage, there are many times when dialogue is lost, incomprehensible.
If these moments of inaudibility are considered technically undesirable, then we rob the remodeling of the play one of its chief premises. With the rustle of tallgrass in a rolling prairie wind, the voices of the Flood family fade onstage, playing Sonny’s memories and dreams before him like a movie.
They are not real. They move about the attic as Sonny watches on, at times, obscured from sight by so much collected brick-a-brack piled on the attic floor. They are investments folded and placed in cedar chests, hung in wardrobes with mothballs, and packaged carefully in yellowed newspaper. “It’s hard for a man to admit his fears, even to himself,” Rubin says.
Perhaps the Sonny of 1945 would say, “Especially to himself.”
When we dream, we sometimes take on the persona of another. Gaining interest on the use of another’s perspective, we walk away with dividends. As Sonny dreams of his family, he takes part in the movie himself. No need to ask mother or father for the dime admission this time. The cost is participation.
The scenes play out for him to watch as he creates and tries on new roles. It is the relationship he builds with his sister, Reenie (Patricia Beam), however, that is the most beautiful of the play. In watching these memories, he most readily adapts to his mother, taking many of her lines in Kelly’s remodeling. “Reenie, don’t you want to have friends?” he asks of his memory. As Sonny watches this movie play out, he relearns how to invest in family.
Sonny, so alike his mother and father, was always afraid of the dark, the storms, the uncertainty of what lay in the shadows covering the staircase.
“Why are you so afraid of the dark?” Cora asks the ten-year-old Sonny.
“You can’t see what’s in front of you.”
But the action of the play no longer concerns what lies ahead of Sonny, rather, what lay behind. Perhaps it is only by revisiting the dark attic in 1945 that the hate and fear of the past can shed light on what lies ahead.
And so we glance about once more before investing one last breath. We turn off the single light bulb and descend the stairs filled with treasures from all the dressers and chests and wardrobes that occupy the attic of our minds.