Friday, March 16, 2012


Sarah Dodd, Nicole Underhay, Rick Roberts, Claire Calnan, Raquel Duffy. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Reviewed by James Karas

The title of Carole Fréchette’s new play now playing at the Tarragon Theatre provides a good lead if not a summary of the plot: The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs. Without knowing anything about the play, you know there will be just what the title states, almost certainly in a big house and the room will contain something mysterious that will take a couple of hours to unravel.

Sure enough, we have Henry (Rick Roberts), handsome, wealthy, with graying hair slicked back, who owns a 28-room house with an Olympic-size swimming pool, gardens and other indicia of affluence.

He meets Grace (Nicole Underhay), blonde, slim, beautiful, they fall in love and in 52 days he proposes marriage to her. He gives her everything and puts only one condition, nay, make that a request, that she not enter, you guessed it, the small room at the top of the stairs.

Grace has a sister, Anne (Claire Calnan) who is not slim, blonde and beautiful and with whom there are issues of sibling rivalry or lack of rapport, let us say.

Their mother Joyce (Sarah Dodd) named her daughters after princesses and she is tickled to her funny bone at the knowledge that her beautiful daughter has snagged a husband with 28 rooms of which 10 are guestrooms.

Henry has a servant named Jenny (Raquel Duffy) who appears subservient, efficient but rather mysterious.

Fréchette gets through with the introductions briskly because the play will develop around what is in that small room that Henry is so insistent that Grace avoid completely.

Please leave the plain, school-marmish Jane Eyre and the grim Mr. Rochester alone. He was hiding a lunatic wife in the small room and he never brought champagne and roses to Jane. For a better precedent, look to the beautiful Pandora, the Eve of Greek mythology, who was given a box with all the evils locked in it and, yes, she opened it. Or maybe the ghoulish Bluebeard who stored former wives on meat hooks in a room in his castle.

Henry travels a lot and his flights have a habit of being cancelled. But Grace’s curiosity mounts and she goes to the small room. Her behavior becomes increasingly frantic as she discovers something very frightful in the room. There are interruptions to the mounting suspense as she tries to figure out what is going on and Henry unexpectedly returns.

He turns on the light and shows her that there is nothing in the room. Then why is he telling her not to go in there? She saw and touched something terrible.

The Small Room is an old fairy tale, wrapped in Gothic style and delivered in modern dress. The set is a black platform with dramatic lighting. The actors sit on the side of the stage when they are not performing.

The hardest work is done by Underhay who is on stage almost throughout the play. She has to move from the happy, sexy woman who found a dream husband through the mounting tension and drama of what she finds in the small room.

Roberts is a romantic millionaire who is generous and loving but he has a secret to hide and he explodes when he is gainsaid. What is his relationship with the maid? And what is that maid all about? She has something to hide, we know it in our bones.

Dodd as Joyce is a classic example of the ambitious mother who wants her daughters to do well. Calnan’s Anne is the envious unattractive sister.

There are all kinds of undertones and mythical references from the salve that works only with true tears, to the dreams of some of the characters. Director Weyni Mengesha and Set and Costume Designer Astrid Janson have opted for a dark, stark presentation using a large, empty platform for a set. The lighting is effective.

The empty, gleaming black floor and the fast-changing scenes give an impressionistic effect of the world of the play rather than the eye-popping murder mystery variety. Mengesha garners performances suitable to that type of approach to the play and provides an interesting evening at the theatre.

The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs by Carole Fréchette opened on March 7 and will play until April 8, 2012 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.

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