by Lynn on March 10, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

l-r Nicole Underhay, Rick Roberts

The following play was reviewed on Friday, March 9, 2012 CIUT Friday Morning, 89.5 FM. THE SMALL ROOM AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS at Tarragon Theatre, Mainspace.

The host was Rose Palmieri

Good Friday morning. It’s the day after International Women’s day and Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer is here with a play by women and about women.

Hi Lynn.

What will you be talking about?

THE SMALL ROOM AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS by Carole Fréchette-a celebrated, award-winning playwright from Quebec.

This is not to be confused with the film Room at the Top. Or the play the Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Or anything else at the top of those stairs.

This is Carole Fréchette’s creation with inspiration from the legend of Bluebeard—the story of a man who married several women, killed them and then kept their bodies hanging in a secret room in his castle.

2) How does the play carry on from the Bluebeard story?

It’s set in contemporary times. A handsome, rich man named Henry, marries a golden girl named Grace. She’s beautiful, charming, and everything he finds perfect in the world.

Henry has been married three times before. He has a 26 room house that is an exquisite work of art. He tells Grace her that she can go anywhere in their 26 room house, except in that small room at the top of the sort of secret staircase in a far corner of the house. And he doesn’t tell her why, or what’s in there.

He jokes that that’s where he put the bodies of his former wives. Grace promises she won’t go into that room—no sirreee. Well, Grace is curious, isn’t she?

Fréchette has written an initially fascinating play that looks like a variation on the Bluebeard story. However, this being Fréchette, there is more to this story than just that gruesome legend.

3) How so?

Grace has a cloying mother named Joyce who is just reveling in her daughter’s good fortune to marry so well and to be so happy. Joyce has two daughters and wanted only the best for them. So she named both after princesses. There is Grace –our golden girl. And her ordinary and unpretty sister Anne.

Anne knows that Grace is her mother’s favourite. Grace gets praise and emotional support. Anne gets criticized and negativity. Anne is married to her high-school sweetheart and she does humanitarian work in foreign countries. She is critical of her sister’s idle life and doesn’t like Henry. There’s something slimy about him she thinks. No argument from me there.

But while Anne leads a useful life, she is deeply unhappy. Perhaps it’s just wanting a little encouragement and not criticism all the time from her mother and sister.

There is also a maid named Jenny who is very attentive to Henry, and obviously jealous of Grace.

So those are the other characters, but the spooky, pervading presence is that small room at the top of the stairs.

Grace is lectured by her mother Joyce not to go into that room and obey her husband. Well you know what’s going to happen. Grace goes in the room. That’s when the trouble starts.

4) OK I won’t ask what trouble. But it sure sounds like a ghost story or a mystery of sorts. Is it?

Carole Fréchette is a tease. She teases us by having Grace describe her long path, down corridor after corridor, to that small room at the top of the stairs.

Here Bonnie Beecher’s beautifully evocative and atmospheric lighting just oozes that kind of spookiness.

So for scene after scene Fréchette teases us about what her play is. Is it a mystery? A ghost story? I discount these because the spooky scenes of her going to the door of the small room, are repeated and repeated overstating the point. I would like to think Fréchette is better than that.

And besides when Grace does go in that room and sees and hears stuff that should terrify any ordinary person, Grace is not terrified, and is strangely attracted to the horror. I figure Fréchette is going for something bigger, more substantial. So is the play a metaphor? An allegory? All of them?

Is it about the facile, superficial interests of Graces’s mother? Is it about the emotional damage done to one sibling if a parent favours the other sibling?

Fréchette introduces an idea in which Grace must find out what true tears mean. Grace gets some salve from Jenny to help the bleeding man in the small room.

Jenny says for the salve to work she must rub a bit in her hand to warm it then drop true tears on them and mix that in….Grace must discover what true tears are and how they are caused. Fréchette mentions this fact late in the play and after a while I get the sense that she is putting too much effort into being profound.

There are too many threads of characters’ stories that throw out interesting comments, but they are jumbled in this too busy play and after a while it becomes tiresome.

I will say that her writing, as always, is elegant, vivid, and so beautifully expressive. And John Murrell’s translation is as beautiful and poetic.

5) You have said that sometimes a production can make up for a confusing script. Does that happen hear?


I think it does. This is a stunning, effective, compelling production. Weyni Mengesha’s direction is confident, vivid and results in an evocative, provocative production. She has a clear vision of this world of the play and her design team has created that world.

Astrid Janson who has created the wonderful costumes and set. The set is a large square playing area with the audience on two sides. To emphasize how golden is the life of Grace, Janson has dressed her in pale beige to gold coloured clothes. Her blouse is like a satiny pale gold. The pants are well fitted beige with beige flats that just says—special, golden, preferred.

Bonnie Beecher’s lighting creates the staircase with illumination and shadow on the floor—love that. And we see the long path Grace has to take in that house to get to that small room…again in light around the edges of the set.

The cast that inhabits this world is stellar, lead by a compelling Nicole Underhay as Grace. Blonde, pert, dimple cheeked and curious. And when Grace is drawn to that room and what’s inside, Underhay conveys that urgency that is gripping and breathless.

As Joyce, Sarah Dodd is both grounded and flighty with her idea that this moneyed marriage is the answer to all her prayers. It’s a performance of a woman that both charms and annoys.

As Anne Claire Calnan has that wonderful ground-down look and attitude of a woman who has had a lot to deal with growing up with a perfect sister her mother prefers. As Henry, Rick Roberts is hugely attractive, disarming and dangerous. Wonderful work. And as Jenny the maid, Raquel Duffy is unsettling as the always attentive maid with strange salve for wounds.

I had problems with Fréchette’s play but this stunning production made up for it in great measure.

Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at

THE SMALL ROOM AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS plays at the Tarragon Mainspace until April 8.

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.