Josh Flanders is an actor, writer and comedian in Chicago. He is a writer for Choice The Musical and half of the comedy duo Flanders. Josh is a contributor for Chicago Reader and Chicagoland Musical Theatre, a member of the American Theater Critics Association, and a graduate of the Second City Conservatory. He is co-owner of Flanders Consulting.
Pictured: Chris Dale and Aneisa Hicks. Photo by Scott Dray.
By Josh Flanders
“The bad people, you don’t hate. You’re only sorry they have to be.” – Cora, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs
In the opening moments of THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS by William Inge, figures appear in shadow behind a wall while the sound of a film projector rattles. Alone, these figures not only reflect a recurring film motif, but also the fear of being abandoned and lack of freedom which each character grapples with in different ways.
Produced by Eclipse Theatre Company, this drama set in early 20th century Oklahoma, follows the Floods, a family suffering under the weight of marital strife. Cora is a proud, loving and faithful wife, struggling with her husband Rubin’s job, which keeps him traveling. Their children, son Sonny and daughter Rennie, are stifled by fear and shyness, both finding ways to isolate themselves. Sonny is obsessed with Hollywood stars and is bullied by kids in his neighborhood, leading him to tantrums and self-centeredness, and Rennie’s anxiety over attending a party makes her physically ill.
Each of the Flood women are balanced by feisty counterparts; for Cora, her sister Lottie, whose fast-talking hyper-energetic demeanor masks an inner sadness over her crumbling marriage; and for young Rennie, her friend Flirt, who brings levity to the household when she visits with her spirited manner, eventually bringing her out to a party with a sympathetic Jewish young man, Sammy. Sammy‘s brief appearance is pivotal, as he seems to be the only one to understand young Sonny’s anger and isolation, bringing a brief sense of hope to Rennie and the family.
The struggling relationships of the two families center around issues of money, fidelity, intimacy, and how they fit into the greater fabric of the early 20th-century American Midwest. Many fears loom, such as “do people like us for us?” and “if we can’t get along with those in our family, how will we get along with people in the world?” Feelings of envy for others with money abound. Worries of survival haunt many of these characters who have been making it on their own in various ways, Sammy without parents, Cora without her husband around, her children who she fears she will not be able to protect from the world, and Lottie in a sexless marriage.
This play was written in 1945 and some of the dialogue is very self-aware. Characters, at times, explain much of what they are feeling instead of taking the show-don’t-tell approach of more modern drama. But while some of the dialogue may lack subtlety, the overall themes of isolation, fear, and loneliness still have a powerful impact. This production brings an energy and immediacy that invites the audience into the living room of the Flood family.
Aneisa Hicks gives a masterful performance as Cora with a balance of brave intensity and compassion, understanding and supportive one moment, and at other times rightfully angry and defiant. Director Jerrell L. Henderson adds greater depth and nuance to several aspects of this play by casting an African American woman as Cora, creating, as he states in the program, “an inescapable tension between what Inge created and what we are presenting here.” This adds a different level to Sonny’s torment and some of the unspoken tensions in the family.
Sarah-Lucy Hill is excellent as the gossipy Lottie, playing well off her milquetoast husband Morris, played with distinction by John Arthur Lewis. Chris Daley as Ruben captures the struggles of a man vying for a sense of freedom and trying to find his place in an ever-changing world that no longer needs what he is selling. Zachary Wagner stands out with intense energy and likability as Sammy. Kudos to Samantha Rausch for her outstanding scenic design for such an intimate space.
THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS is a powerful look at a family struggling with many of the same issues that families face today – getting along, fitting into an unwelcoming world, and facing the encroaching darkness.
THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS runs through December 16 at the Athenaeum Theatre. For more information visit athenaeumtheatre.or