Among my favorite writers (in any language, in any genre), there’s a special place for Tennessee Williams. Of course, like theater goers everywhere, I adore the canonical plays, which, in contemporary revivals, sparkle afresh.
Even more, I love that, knowing much of Williams’ work as well as I do, he still surprises me – most recently, with Stairs to the Roof, a youthful play I had barely heard of, seen here in a knockout, brilliantly imaginative staging by director Lane Savadove at EgoPo Classic Theatre.
Williams’ great reputation rests on a mere handful of plays, written over a period of less than ten years – The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). There is considerable range among them, yet they share a favorite, recurring theme – Southern women in extremis, trying to find a lifeline in a world that, nearly a century after the Civil War, is still anything but “reconstructed.”
These situations and characters, along with Williams’ poetic, elegiac-yet-wry dialogue, are what audiences and critics expect of Tennessee. They have been much imitated, in admiring hommages as well as derisive parodies.
But at the same time, Williams also continued to experiment, working in a mix of styles that seems to have bewildered and alienated influential observers (by which, of course, I mean critics).
Even at the height of Williams’ fame, there are works that fall outside what we expect, like the fascinating Camino Real (1953), which is part romance, part literary fantasia, part Grand Guignol – and ultimately, uncategorizable. Over the course of six decades, Williams also wrote short plays – some of them more like literary fragments – that are often maddeningly abstract and baroque… until, suddenly, there’s a passage of staggering brilliance and clarity.
The later plays from the 1960s and beyond were once thought a vast wasteland, but in recent years, there’s been a surge in appreciation. They’re not always easy for theaters to produce (or for audiences to understand) – but they are intermittently extraordinary.
Here in Philadelphia, Savadove has led a campaign on behalf of Williams’ later plays. EgoPo’s first season in Philadelphia included atmospheric productions of Vieux Carré and Something Cloudy, Something Clear – two Williams plays that finally made it to the stage toward the end of his life, though he’d been fiddling with both for years.
What’s still largely unfamiliar is Williams’ early work, from the decade that preceded The Glass Menagerie.
Bit by bit, though, we’re rediscovering these, too. In the late 1990s, Not About Nightingales, a 1938 prison reform drama, was resurrected, under the guidance of Vanessa and Corin Redgrave, and the Royal National Theatre, to great acclaim.
And now, we have Savadove and EgoPo to the rescue again – this time with Stairs to the Roof.
So much of this show is startling – in the best sense – that perhaps it’s worth pointing out what is familiar Williams’ territory (especially to those who know The Glass Menagerie). There’s a young man (Ben), who is trapped in corporate, cookie-cutter environment that threatens to destroy his individuality. His family life is equally suffocating. The only escape is the poetic nature of his mind and soul. The subtitle of Stairs – A Prayer for the Wild of Heart That are Kept in Cages – is pure Williams.
What’s unfamiliar is… well, pretty much everything else.
I expect a tonal mix in Williams, but this is on another other level. I do see some influences, though. A brief romance between Ben and a young girl (not his wife) has the sweet sadness of Clifford Odets’ plays about life among the underdogs (Waiting for Lefty had opened a few years before.) There are also resonances of European writers popular at the time – the magical interludes of Molnar’s Liliom, for example, which a few years later would inspire Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel.
Ultimately, it’s the range of tones and styles that are the biggest challenge to producing Stairs to the Roof. I think it would be categorized as a comedy – certainly the closest thing to it that I know in Williams, though there are some astonishingly funny sections in even his darkest plays (Sweet Bird of Youth, for one). But that doesn’t quite capture it. I certainly couldn’t begin to figure out how to bring it to the stage.
But Savadove has – spectacularly so.
The style is more playful than I could have imagined, brimming with visual imagination and energy (and it’s carried through by a remarkably gifted, winning cast of young people, some of them current college students). Much of it looks like German Expressionism, which sounds odd for Williams and a play set in New York, but proves very apt.
I hesitate to say more, since it would be best to see it without knowing too much. But see it you must, if you’re an admirer of Williams, or have any interest at all in the art of theater direction and design.
I left the show brimming with admiration for Savadove and EgoPo, and full of ideas for other things I’d like to see them do. Why not Liliom, a play many of us know about because of Carousel, but few have seen? Or some of the classic Expressionist works – maybe Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine, or Ernst Toller’s No More Peace!, or Oscar Kokoschka’s Job.
And, of course – more Tennessee Williams, please – including Camino Real. What this company could do with that nearly impossible but bewitching play!…