STAIRS TO THE ROOF (EgoPo and Rowan): An absurdist take on a fledgling work by Tennessee Williams

Members of the ensemble of EgoPo’s STAIRS TO THE ROOF (Photo credit: David Sarrafian)

Members of the ensemble of EgoPo’s STAIRS TO THE ROOF (Photo credit: David Sarrafian)

A rarely-produced early play by Tennessee Williams, STAIRS TO THE ROOF (1941) is the fantasy of an office worker in a St. Louis shirt factory, who dreams of escaping the tedium of his dead-end 9-5 job. The self-described “prayer for the wild of heart that are kept in cages” is filled with youthful ardor, idealism, and scorn, and is well suited for showcasing a young ensemble of emerging talents. And that’s precisely what director Lane Savadove has done with his casting of the Philadelphia premiere of Williams’s Expressionist comedy.

The production is a partnership between EgoPo Classic Theater (of which Savadove is founding artistic director) and Rowan University’s College of Performing Arts (where he serves as head of acting and directing, and, in 2012, helmed a student production of the show). The fourteen actors appearing along with Savadove’s colleague Christopher Marlowe Roche (head of musical theater at Rowan) are all recent alumni  or current students of the university, who bring a refreshing high-energy spirit, humor, and passion to this little-known work, the second installment of EgoPo’s 2014-15 “American Giants Festival.”  To be sure, this is Williams as you’ve never seen him!

Lauren Berman and Craig O’Brien star in EgoPo’s STAIRS TO THE ROOF (Photo credit: David Sarrafian)

Lauren Berman and Craig O’Brien star in EgoPo’s STAIRS TO THE ROOF (Photo credit: David Sarrafian)

Ben Murphy, Williams’s semi-autobiographical protagonist (to earn money during the Depression, the playwright had to quit college to work in his father’s shoe company in St. Louis, typing orders for eight hours a day) is a white-collar everyman. He forsakes the entrapment of his office and commitment to his pregnant wife for a liberating nocturnal adventure that affirms his zest for life and “ambition to be the first homo emancipatus.” Spurred by his discovery of a hidden stairway to the rooftop and culminating in a symbolic journey to a distant star, the story follows Ben and a downtrodden lovesick secretary from his building (the captivating Craig O’Brien and Lauren Berman star as the night-prowling “impractical idealists”). Their magical escapades include releasing foxes from their cage in a zoo (a metaphor of their own desire to be free) and an uproarious scene of the fabulous Roche as a wild swan (and I do mean wild!) celebrating its own natural grace, beauty, and independence.

EgoPo’s design team transports us to a wondrous world of colorfully cartoonish makeshift sets (Dan Soule), clever toy-theater props (Ileana Fortuño), and ‘40s inspired costumes (Robin Shane), with expert sound (Robert Carlton) and lighting (Matt Sharp). Savadove’s direction (with significant contributions credited to the  associate director Dane Eissler) emphasizes the comic absurdity and energetic physicality of Ben’s imaginary capers and the fully committed cast members, with not a weak link in the large ensemble, embrace the sensibility with full-out enthusiasm and full-blown ridiculousness.

Craig O’Brien as Ben and Jenna Kuerzi as Alma in EgoPo’s STAIRS TO THE ROOF (Photo credit: David Sarrafian)

Craig O’Brien as Ben and Jenna Kuerzi as Alma in EgoPo’s STAIRS TO THE ROOF (Photo credit: David Sarrafian)

There is a serious note: Ben’s desire to recapture the American dream considers the negative impact of capitalism and industrialization on the human spirit and its emotional fulfillment. Williams’ important themes are not lost in EgoPo’s ebullient production, which includes effective scenes of the workers performing their irrelevant mind-numbing jobs as slow-motion automatons and miming their non-stop typing while providing the sound effects of old-fashioned typewriters (“click, click, click, click, ding!”). The wide-eyed Angela Smith is a standout among them.

Williams himself would later acknowledge that this fledgling attempt as a playwright was in parts “awkward” and “sophomoric”, and STAIRS TO THE ROOF would seem hopelessly dated in a less exuberant production. But EgoPo’s witty vision exaggerates the more problematic elements of the script and succeeds in keeping the audience in stitches. A case in point: abandoning an expectant wife for an office romance as a symbol of self-expression and a break from oppression reeks of misogyny in our post-feminist era, but the portrayals of the shrewish wives Alma (Jenna Kuerzi) and Edna (Rachel O’Hanlon-Rodriguez) are such hysterical caricatures, that we can’t help but laugh at the period’s unenlightened view of women and the actresses’ hilarious over-the-top performances. Rounding out the terrific cast are Dexter Anderson, Ileana Fortuño, Constanze Keller, AJ Klein, Katie Knoblock, Dana Orange, Michael Pliskin, Andy Spinosi, and Matthew Weil—all names to look for in the future. An unexpectedly bizarre ending, with nods to both science-fiction and Broadway musicals, reinforces the wackiness of EgoPo’s entertaining show. [The Latvian Society, 531 N. 7th Street] February 11-March 1, 2015; egopo.org.

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About the author

Debra Miller

Debra holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Delaware and teaches at Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ. She is a judge for the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, Philadelphia Arts and Culture Correspondent for Central Voice, and has served as a Commonwealth Speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and President of the Board of Directors of Da Vinci Art Alliance. Her publications include articles, books, and catalogues on Renaissance, Baroque, American, Pre-Columbian, and Contemporary Art, and feature articles on the Philadelphia theater scene.