A Child Actor Holds the Stage Like a Veteran in Cast Theatrical Company's The Dark at the Top of the Stairs

The setup:

In Cast Theatrical Company's The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, a small-town family deals with the changing world of the 1920s, showcasing playwright William Inge's talent for authentic characterizations and his abiding interest in family dynamics.

The execution:

In a small town near Oklahoma City, Cora and Rubin Flood are continuing their bickering. Cora, while a well-meaning, good-hearted wife and mother, is controlling as well. Rubin, a free spirit who courted Cora on a horse, is chafing at the reins, and his business of selling said reins is dwindling as the automotive age settles in. Daughter Reenie is painfully shy at 16, and the ten-year old son, Sonny, won't stand up to the bullies tormenting him.

Be patient with the bickering and background filling-in of Act I -- things pick up in Act II, as Cora's sister Lottie and her husband Morris arrive for dinner. This marriage is no bowl of cherries, either, but there is at least variety in the problems; it may come as no surprise that Lottie is controlling as well. Rubin is absent for this Act but returns for a compelling Act II, as issues are resolved -- or not.

The acting and direction are of a high order. Sharon Appel, a Cast Theater favorite, plays Cora and captures her good-heartedness, but the script consists of such a drumbeat of her controlling demands that it makes it difficult for Appel to create variety. Michael Thorpe as Rubin beautifully captures the rhythm of a steed tethered too tightly. Michael Gallegos plays Morris, an underwritten part, and nonetheless creates a memorable character. Brenda Kuciemba succeeds as Lottie, a difficult, complex role. Mollie Mae Herron, as Reenie, looks wonderful and captures her character's insecurity and painful shyness. Hannah Finney plays Flirt, a friend of Reenie, and what I took for overacting in Act I became identifiable by Act II as teenage enthusiasm. Xavier Lehew is good as Reenie's young, Jewish date, and Jakob Ekleberry plays Punkie Givens, Flirt's young and inarticulate date, but there is nowhere to go with this role.

I've saved the best for last. Parker Hearon, in his first role, plays the ten-year-old Sonny, and while his line readings are quite good, his reactions to what is occurring are breathtakingly accurate. This results in making the play not about the problems of adults, but about the effect of family discord on a child. This not only strengthens the somewhat dated drama, it gives it a contemporary relevance far from the 1920s. Young Hearon has remarkable poise and stage presence, and the director, David Hymel, assisted by his wife, Crys Hymel, is to be commended for finding such a talent and nurturing such a performance. Just as George Gershwin told Ethel Merman never to take a singing lesson, I hope this raw talent, close to genius, survives the probably inevitable cascade of acting teachers. In theater, listening well to the other characters is half the battle -- perhaps more than half -- and I can't think when I saw someone do it better.

The verdict:

A play about the 1920s from one of the 20th century's master craftsmen is well-acted, and made surprisingly relevant by some extraordinary performances, including a child actor in his first role, who holds the stage like a veteran.

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs continues through July 1, at Cast Theatrical Company, 1909 Avenue G, Rosenberg. For information or ticketing, call 832-889-3808 or contact: [email protected]

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Jim Tommaney