Houses in dreams are rich in meaning, often symbolizing the human psyche. When you dream of a house with a lot of empty rooms, for example, it might represent untapped potential; one with secret, hidden rooms might point to an aspect of self that has been repressed, locked up, shunted aside.
Carole Frechette’s chamber play The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs (at Off the Wall Theater in Carnegie) takes up this latter idea and hangs it, like a shimmering cloth, on the skeleton of the Bluebeard legend. In the play, Grace, a Cinderella-like beauty with “sky-blue eyes,” has captured the heart of a modern day prince, the fabulously rich Henry. Henry lives in a superbly appointed mansion with twenty-eight rooms, and he ensconces Grace in her new digs with the freedom to “spread her wings” everywhere in the house except one, small room at the top of a hidden staircase down a narrow hallway. This, of course, is the only room that captures her interest and curiosity, and the playwright depends on our collective memory of the Bluebeard story to set up expectations about what Grace will find when she defies her husband’s wishes – expectations that are subverted and twisted in ways that it would be unfair for me to reveal here. That said, the play itself drops plenty of hints about how we are to interpret what she finds: when talking to her sister Anne, Grace describes the house as “like the human mind…ninety percent unoccupied,” an assessment that Henry echoes a few lines later. Like nineteenth-century gothic novels, Frechette’s play uses creepy supernatural elements as a means of figuring psychological wounds, and she allows those elements to materialize in order to make palpable how powerful hidden and damaged aspects of the psyche can be.
Under Ingrid Sonnichsen’s direction, the fine ensemble – Daina Michelle Griffith, Ken Bolden, Brooke Lerner, Sharon Brady, and Amy Landis – tells the story with a good mixture of tension and suspense, and with just the right amount of humor mixed in. Each character appears, at first, rather one-dimensional, but as the play unfolds the inner complexity of each character also gets unveiled. The cast parcels out these revelations much the same way the play metes out its secrets, producing a compelling and intriguing bit of theater.