All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Even when the sleeping dog is a seldom performed early play by Tennessee Williams that gives glimpses of America’s finest playwright’s themes and language to come.
“Stairs to the Roof” is unequivocally a young man’s composition. Written in the mid-40s, before “The Glass Menagerie” propelled Williams to acclaim (but produced after “Menagerie”), it foreshadows the longing in Tom Wingfield to fall in love, as his father did, with long distance and escape from the ordinary routine of his life.
“Stairs to the Roof’s” protagonist, Ben Murphy, is caught in the same bind Tom is. In lieu of a mother and sister to support at home, Ben has a wife and two children. Rather than a shoe warehouse, he works for a St. Louis shirt manufacturer as a clerk whose job is to type orders in triplicate every day, without much respite, for eight hours a day.
It is numbing labor, and Ben steals what little time he can to get fresh air and clear his mind on the roof of the 11-story Consolidated Shirt Company office building where he works. Getting to the roof is no easy task. Its access is hidden to the point of being unknown to most of Ben’s co-workers, and it can only be reached by an out-of-the-way staircase Ben discovers while searching the building looking for a private place to flee from his daily drudgery.
Freedom is Williams’s theme. Ben yearns for it. He is young and wants adventure. He needs security, and a job of eight years standing is important, but Ben sees the monotony at Consolidated and the obligations at home as a weight he has to shed. In this way, he not only parallels Tom Wingfield but the lead character Williams’s contemporary, Arthur Miller, has laboring frustratingly in a shoe factory in “A Memory of Two Mondays” Our two most important playwrights from a given period shared and expressed the same feeling in their early plays, the impetus of young, vigorous men to shed the bonds of middle class respectability and enjoy a wider, less pressing, more fulfilling existence.
As new playwrights will, even those of prodigious talent, Williams expresses Ben’s wish to be in the open space represented by his rooftop refuge over and over again. It becomes a leitmotif, a continuing rallying cry that, I fear, wears out its welcome after a while. Williams is revealing his propensity for repeating lines and ideas within plays, but Ben in “Stairs to the Roof” talks too much about his ambition to be free. There comes a point at which you want to say to him, “We know. We know. Man should not have his spirit sapped by being chained to a schedule doing a task that means nothing to him except a pay envelope. He should be in the fresh air and soar.”
Tell it to the Marines.
No, it’s OK to tell it to us, but “Stairs to the Roof” doesn’t have the finesse or elegance of the work Williams would soon produce and may have been composing simultaneously. Poetry peeks through. You begin to hear the cadences and vocabulary of Williams dialogue. Ben’s story has facets, especially when he falls in love with a young woman who works for Consolidated and takes her for an eventful night on the town. But “Stairs on the Roof” doesn’t have the mobility or momentum of later Williams. It stagnates in Ben’s one-note desire to liberate himself, and the woman Williams simply calls Girl, from the enervating doldrums they face day after day.
Williams gets fanciful in spots. Again, in the spirit of a young playwright flexing his imagination, he has Ben liberate 15 foxes from a zoo and has Ben and the Girl watch a production of “Beauty and the Beast” that features his best friend and the woman he pals with as the title characters, in spite of the man, Jim, being linked elsewhere. And it’s hard to ignore the futuristic conclusion.
it isn’t that nothing happens in “Stairs to the Roof.” It’s that everything is so much the product of a fertile literary mind that hasn’t found its full voice or the grace to tell his story neatly. Williams, always romantic and always creating characters that need liberation, goes too far in some directions while being too contained in others.
That’s why I consider “Stairs to the Roof” a sleeping dog. Yes, oh yes, I was curious to see it. Eager to see it. A work I didn’t know by Tennessee Williams? That’s three textures and flavors of chocolate under cascading fudge and genuine kitchen-made whipped cream. That’s divinely ripe and oozing mozzarella with tomatoes from gardens of Capri, sprinkled with fresh basil. That’s theater buff nirvana.
But while I saw the talent in Williams’s play, I did not find it involving or engrossing. My anticipation went unrewarded, unlike when I saw Williams’s 1938 play set in Philadelphia, “Not About Nightingales,” a couple of decades back. (I wonder why that has not been done locally.)
Entertaining is a different story.
EgoPo Classic Theater stylized “Stairs to the Roof” to a a point that I sometimes lost interest in the play, but I rarely took my eye from Lane Savadove’s constantly creative, eccentrically expressionistic production.
You think Williams, you think naturalism, “Camino Real” and some later works aside.
In the text of “Stairs to the Roof,” you hear the naturalism. I’m not sure how Williams’s work would have played in a more traditional staging. I can see melodrama and overwriting pulling ahead of taut, cogent dialogue.
Savadove leaves me in wonder because his production was the opposite of traditional. It was more as if Williams morphed into Karel Capek or Elmer Rice or took his cues from a Charlie Chaplin movie. Then again, one has to account for the closing scenes of the play, which would be risible if done too literally. Savadove may have taken his cue from that and figured if he’d have to change course in the last eighth of the play, he might as well start with expressionism and take it from there.
Savadove takes Ben’s small world and makes it big and non-stop. His ideas run from the hilarious, using toy wind-up dogs like you see sold on Boardwalks and at carnivals, as the 15 freed foxes — Inspired! — to symbolically overt, as when he has the Consolidated work force enter the stage in a choreographed lockstep, making exaggerated arm and body motions as they head to chairs that are far too tiny for adults.
These are folks enlisted to do mindless work and do it snappily under the watchful eye of the unforgiving supervisor, Mr. Gum who checks constantly for speed, efficiency, and productivity. He notices any empty chair and times the seconds before the vacated desk is once more occupied. The synchronized, ritualistic motion the cast uses to enter their work area is replaced by an equally mechanical routine that signifies typing, returning a carriage, rolling paper around the platen, and tearing it free again. The exercise shows the busy but dull drudgery of the work the typists do, Ben Murphy included. Overarticulated movement is also used when a typist goes to a file cabinet or mimes placing a finished document on a pile. Once Savadove has worked his actors like automatons, and Mr. Gum has showed his overbearingly disciplinary style of management, it is clear why anyone with anyone with gumption, such as Ben, would want to flee. Savadove presents an image of a day totally regimented, totally monitored, totally demeaning (to Gum and the workers), and totally suffocating.
Ben’s plea for air, and his discovery of the roof, amount almost to survival. The constant pressure and constant routine demand relief of some sort. Ben is like a guppy who comes to the surface for air before plunging into the water for its next swim.
Savadove makes that critical need for breaks from unfulfilling labor quite plain via the unrelenting physical rituals his cast carries out so explicitly. It would be instructive now to see a standard, unstylized version of “Stairs to the Roof” to see if the stifling feeling would be conveyed as clearly as it is via EgoPo’s extreme theatrics, in which Savadove is served well by a strictly orchestrated, completely into-it group of students from New Jersey’s Rowan University, where Savadove is the head of the acting and directing programs.
The synchronized entrance is not the only visual image Savadove uses to effect. Dan Soule’s set is composed of drawn cardboard pieces to represent the city. Like the chairs the typists occupy, they’re miniature in scale. When the employees are in the Consolidated Building, the cut-out of it sits stage right. It remains there with flats of a cityscape attached at right angles to its flanks when the larger town of St. Louis needs to be represented.
Everything is way out of scale. The workers sink into their tiny chairs. Ben and Girl dwarf the Consolidated Building when they’re standing next to it. I can intellectualize and say they feel so small while they’re doing their jobs and so big, as individuals, when they leave work and are on their own, that the various set pieces are in proportion to the characters’ egos at a given time, but that would be overreaching. Let’s say the juxtaposition of the actors next to props and set pieces is amusing.
Savadove makes his city away from Consolidated a fantasy of sorts. A big ferris dominates the upstage skyline of the set, and we are plunged into a carnival of sorts. We even see shows, including the aforementioned “Beauty and the Beast”
Ben and Girl are both breaking barriers when Ben convinces his new friend to skip a day of work and frolic with him in the city. Reality comes to bear by regular conversations Ben has with his wife. Contrast between both of Ben’s attachments, with Girl, and with his wife, is provided by a sado-masochistic affair between Ben’s friend, Jim, and his lonely girlfriend, Helen, who will accept her lot to have the attention of another person.
A lot goes on, but it all seems exaggerated. Savadove’s creativity is impressive, and at times so imaginative, you need to congratulate it even when you think it’s overworked, but Williams’s play gets lost in two separate, divergent shuffles.
The real-life sequences, in which we’re asked to consider Ben’s wife and family register only as comedy because Savadove’s expressionistic style can only cast Alma, the wife, as a conventional harridan, another length of link in Ben’s chain. The character doesn’t get the advantage of being sympathetic or to serve as a reminder that Ben is not as special or as independent as he imagines and does have commitments and responsibilities he should think about now that he has contracted for them. Yes, you’d still root for Ben, but Alma deserves more due than she receives from EgoPo.
Savadove adds loony layers of texture that are fun to watch and admirable for their conception let alone execution, but he buys that flash in exchange for the basic humanity Williams’s characters may have projected in a more standard reading of “Stairs to the Roof.” Ben’s plight seems real, and universal. Ben, the character doesn’t, which is no fault of the impressive Craig O’Brien but of a production that gives more sway to form and format than to depth of characterization. (Katie Knoblock’s Helen alone is permitted to achieve completeness in terms of building a character that serves the script and Savadove’s stylization and shows, physically, as well as archetypically, an entire emotional range. Knoblock’s portrayal lets you think and feel something about Helen beyond her role in Williams’s story.)
I am left with the impression I still haven’t seen Williams’s play because I was taken with Savadove’s handiwork, but I think it engaged me in spite of what Williams wrote and corrupted the intension and understanding of the play.
Given a choice, I would trade the mechanical dogs, the intense production of “Beauty and the Beast,” and some mystical doings on the roof, to see “Stairs on the Roof” in a more conventional form.
What EgoPo offers is entertaining, but it’s too much. Somewhere a compromise has to be reached between Williams’s script and Savadove’s direction to decide what is enough.
In the end I was entertained by all the theatrical pyrotechnics and ritual, but I was not satisfied that I saw a play. The ultimate overkill reduced “Stairs to the Roof” to a one-note rallying cry that pleas for freedom and room to breathe.
Williams may have prompted Savadove to be totally expressionistic because of some scenes he includes about the executives from Consolidated dogging Ben and the Girl to the roof where some wondrous things occur, but the play would have benefited by more of a happy medium between the naturalistic and the outlandish.
The Rowan cast acquits itself excellently.
Craig O’Brien does well to convey Savadove’s harried, adventurous, rebellious Ben, who is fed up enough to summon the moxie to let zoo animals go and run from the police, and Williams’s put-upon Ben who needs a break from soul-draining monotony to continue living.
O’Brien has a mischievous look in his eye as he enters the set and takes his place on the itty-bitty chair. He signals his difference from the pack. You can tell he is cognizant of how he’s being brutalized and manipulated and that he wants to do something that reveals his perception of the gnome-of-Zurich way Consolidated abuses its typing pool.
Ben turns into a leader when he meets Girl, who wants to get back into a locked Consolidated building after business hours to retrieve a love note she wrote to her boss and left on his desk. O’Brien’s voice becomes commanding and motivating when he talks to Girl. It remains that way as he empties the zoo and takes Girl on a spree. He has found a partner who was not as disgruntled as Ben when we meet, but who quickly realizes the adventure Ben offers, risks and all, is preferable to moiling and toiling about shirts, attractive boss or not.
Lauren Berman conveys a sweet, demure newcomer to corporate life when we first see her mooning over her boss as he gives dictation and spouts advice about life, ironic as that is coming from an unrepentant philanderer. While Ben rebels and has his taste of freedom, Girl blossoms as his companion. She begins to see potential. She isn’t always comfortable with all she comes to realize, but she is excited to be free of having to fit a pattern for what a young woman of the 40s should be.
Berman’s shows Girl’s growth and how her time with Ben changes her.
Michael Pliskin is one of the production’s most realistic characters as Jim, a guy who doesn’t mind putting in his day’s work as long as he can have some recreation, preferably sexual, in his uncommitted hours. Pliskin captures Jim’s roughness compared with Ben’s dreamier attitude about escaping reality.
Katie Knoblock is able to touch an emotional cord as Helen because she lets you see the loneliness that explains why Helen will put up with Jim’s push-me-pull-you, slobbering then affectionate way of conducting an affair. Knoblock informs you of the degradation Helen feels from all Jim puts her through, but she also conveys the need Helen has to be close to someone.
Jenna Kuerzi makes a case for empathy as Alma, but the production turns her more into a comic shrew than an abandoned, cheated-on wife.
Dexter Anderson displays just the right smugness as Girl’s duplicitous boss, whose infidelity is clear even to Girl while she’s infatuated with him. Matthew Weil is humorously suspicious and dictatorial as Mr. Gum.
Dan Soule’s set is often witty, especially when we see the carnival in the background. Robert Carlton’s sound design is varied and evocative.
“Stairs to the Roof,” produced by EgoPo Classic Theater, runs through Sunday, March 1, at the Latvian Society, 531 N. 7th Street (just north of Spring Garden St.), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 and can be obtained by calling 267-273-1414 or by visiting www.egopo.org.