Just in time for Halloween, Off the Wall Productions presents the Pittsburgh premiere of Canadian playwright Carole Fréchette's deceptive ghost story The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs.
The tale is told by Grace, a young woman who in the eyes of her mother (and to the dismay of her sister) has hit the jackpot by meeting, romancing and marrying an extraordinarily wealthy man. So besotted is Henry with his new bride that he builds her a 28-room mansion ... a garden in which she can blossom.
There's just one caveat: Grace can go anywhere except a small room at the top of a hidden staircase. You can probably guess what happens next.
Except maybe you can't. The deception of Small Room isn't the twist of plot, but rather the transformation of the play's intent and purpose.
Fréchette relies heavily on gothic tales of the past — Jane Eyre, The Tell-Tale Heart, the legend of Bluebeard — to fuel the first half of her story. In the second, however, the "spookiness" gives way to a melancholy tone poem perfumed with more than a little magic lyricism about love and loneliness.
None of which is, necessarily, a bad thing. No matter what style she's writing in, Fréchette has a gorgeous command of the language. Though you could say that Small Room is a quite talky play, when the talk's this captivating there's little cause for complaint.
Especially when that talk is talked so brilliantly by this intensely talented cast. Director Ingrid Sonnichsen, with impeccable style, has herself fashioned a solidly built garden in which all the performers bloom.
An achingly tormented Daina Michelle Griffith, as Grace, leads stand-out performances by Sharon Brady, Amanda Brooke Lerner, Ken Bolden and Amy Landis. In a way, the evening is a precise minuet, and all five actors weave in and out of Fréchette's linguistic melodies.
To fully appreciate the work, my advice is to ignore the haunted-house expectations the playwright sets up and focus instead on her glorious words. It's unlikely you'll ever hear them spoken as well.