If there were an Architectural Digest for the postmodern-fairy-tale realm, it would have lavished coverage on Grace’s new home. After marrying the rich dreamboat Henry, Grace has moved into his mansion — a sprawling palace with turrets, balconies, Turkish and Viennese sitting rooms and an Olympic-size pool. She has the entire place at her disposal, except for a tiny chamber that her husband has forbidden her to enter. Needless to say, it’s the off-limits space that she’s pining to explore.
Such is the scenario teased out in “The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs,” an audacious and maddening play by Canadian dramatist Carole Fréchette. Now on view in a handsome Spooky Action Theater production, directed by Helen R. Murray, Fréchette’s fable begins as a wry and suspenseful updating of the Bluebeard fairy tale. But just when that story’s familiar grisly revelation seems imminent, Fréchette switches gears, plunging her heroine into the realm of unrooted symbolism. The macabre enigma that Grace finds in the forbidden room may represent an escape from patriarchal dictates. Or maybe it’s an emblem of existential freedom. Or a stand-in for all the suffering in the world.
The play does not settle the question: Indeed, after a frustratingly draggy final section, “Small Room” concludes without any closure. As a result, it is best suited to patient fans of offbeat storytelling who hunger for an interpretive puzzle to solve.
With a poised, compelling cast and stylish design, Murray’s production certainly puts a good face on the script. (Murray previously staged “John & Beatrice,” another Fréchette play with fairy tale overtones, at the Hub Theatre, where she is outgoing artistic director.) Casie Platt makes Grace’s bubbleheaded obstinacy seem credible, and Michael Kevin Darnall effortlessly tinges Henry’s charm with sinister shadows. Mindy Shaw brings gusto to the role of Grace’s know-it-all mother; and Carolyn Kashner and Tuyet Thi Pham are sturdy presences as, respectively, Grace’s resentful sister and a maid.
Designer Amy MacDonald instills a hint of the otherworldly into the modern-dress costumes, and David Crandall’s sound design ratchets up the story’s ominousness. Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s smart, minimalist set — a wooden platform and two matching enclosures — prompts us to imagine the baroque excesses of Henry’s house, including the taboo small room that, like this play, calls out just to the intrepid.
The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs by Carole Fréchette, translated by John Murrell. Directed by Helen R. Murray; lighting design, Brittany Shemuga; props, Amy Kellett. About 90 minutes. Tickets: $20-$40. Through June 10 at Spooky Action Theater at Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St. NW. 202-248-0301. spookyaction.org.