For those that crave the macabre over the cloying this Valentines’ Day weekend, try venturing into “The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs” at the Yale Cabaret — if you dare. Québécois playwright Carole Fréchette summons up echoes of Gothic romance (think Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel “Rebecca”) but ultimately conjures voices less supernatural than quotidien. Despite a familiar “girl meets great but mysterious man” premise, this unconventional tale becomes the ideal antidote to the over sugared-spiced-and-everything-niced love story.
The Cabaret’s intimate dinner theater setting makes the show a nearly eHarmony match for the space. Most of the action déroules on a small riser center stage, but occasionally transitions into the audienc e. In the first, and most striking, of one of the play’s movements, the two actors took seats at the heads of two long, banquet-style tables filled with real-life theater-goers. Customers’ chatter hushed. I saw one man try to talk to the actress now ensconced to his left. The thespians may have been exposed by their make-up and costumes, but their arrival nonetheless marked a subtle, masterful transition from real to performance. The space is transformed from restaurant to “a sitting room, Vienna 1900,” and, in the end, to a projection of the protagonist’s imagination.
If, as two characters chant, “the human mind is 90 percent unoccupied,” then that of level-headed newlywed Grace (Chasten Harmon DRA ’15) seems to be overbooked. Though seemingly infatuated with her husband Henry (Ryan Campbell DRA ’15), she sub-lets to powerful female voices. Her sister Anne (Elia Monte-Brown DRA ’14) surges forward with the most conviction and compassion, clashing against the spirit of her rather stereotypical mother, Joyce (Elivia Bovenzi DRA ’14). Where Joyce rejoices at the thought of domestic bliss for her daughter, Anne cautions Grace against falling for a stranger. Anne questions whether the couple’s commitment has substance and advises her sister against a cloistered life with Henry in his castle-like home. Anne later confesses she knows Grace thinks of her as a “dumb as dirt” sister who “oversimplifies” everything. As tension builds, though, we realize this perceived flaw of her sister’s could have been Grace’s best defense.
Grace’s most poignant character flaw — and the show’s most effective prop — seems to center around a distortion of the mundane. When Henry orders Grace never to go into the room at the top of the stairs, surprise, surprise — she does. Upon opening the door, though, (semi-spoiler alert but don’t worry you see an anti-climax coming) a chute of dirt cascades down on her, not a body, nor dismembered limbs. But Grace does hallucinate, during several trespasses into the room, that she sees a man and feels his face, and other parts of his body. If only she could’ve seen the dirt, or the simple explanation behind in the “spirit” she believes she confronts.
Grace, portrayed by Harmon with poise and intensity, almost dominates the plot as a dynamic female heroine (remember, in “Rebecca,” the second Mrs. Maxim de Winter doesn’t even get a first name!). Instead of succumbing as a Mrs. Danvers-bound victim, Grace manipulates her maid, Jenny (Mariko Parker DRA ’14) into keeping her trespass a secret from Henry. And, true to Fréchette’s pattern of non-convention, the cheerfully malignant Jenny betrays Grace in one of the play’s more gripping dramatic scenes. Intrigue!
Though the final chapter will be kept a mystery, Henry and Grace’s relationship illuminates a simple reality of love: that it’s terrifying on some level (with or without a Mrs. Danvers or Jenny breathing down your back) to move into another person’s thoughts. Maybe the “man” Grace sees, the one Henry’s afraid to let her see, is not Mr. Hyde, but Dr. Jekyll — not the Beast, but his human form. Maybe scary can be that “simple.” What, ultimately, isn’t frightening about leading someone into your hallowed ground, and letting another person see who you truly are?