“Stairs to the Roof” is a play that many theater-goers may never have heard of by a playwright they probably know quite well. One of Tennessee Williams’ earliest works and his first written deliberately for a mass audience, “Stairs” has never had the popular appeal of Williams’ later plays. Seemingly aware of this fact, visiting director Michael M. Donahue ’05 turns the Agassiz theater inside-out with an exciting and unconventional production that breathes vibrant life into a work that wouldn’t ordinarily jump off the page.
“Stairs” is the story of Benjamin Murphy, a cog in the machine at a shirt manufacturing company, whose only escape from his drab world is a secret set of stairs that leads him to the roof of the building in which he works. Benjamin is portrayed by portrayed by Scott E. Lyman, a graduate student at the American Repertory Theater/ Moscow Art Theater School Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University (A.R.T./MXAT). Stuck in a life he has no passion for, Benjamin and his co-worker (A.R.T./MXAT student Lindsay Strachan), referred to simply as Girl, embark on a whimsical adventure to explore everything their lives had previously denied them.
Donahue flips the audience’s perspective by seating them on the stage, while the play’s action takes place on a platform in the middle of the traditional seating area. However, the actors are not solely confined to this makeshift stage; two ladders give them access to the balcony of the theater, and they roam freely throughout the entire space.
The staging consistently takes full advantage of the extra square footage, as the director scatters actors among levels and between seats to keep things interesting when Williams’ dialogue gets preachy or repetitive. These arrangements are clever, surprising, and never distracting.
In one scene, Benjamin and Girl joke back and forth while hanging from the two ladders, adding a little bit of tension to a scene that otherwise could have felt stale. The ladders, in particular, not only hold symbolic value in the context of the themes of the play, but also do a good job of unifying the theatrical playground.
The space constantly hums with the energy of a living, breathing workspace; at various points, the background features a tailor tending to dressed mannequins, messengers running back and forth, and secretaries laboring silently on their invisible type-writers.
Details like working light bulbs on the tops of mannequins and an old-fashioned lamppost extending from one corner add character to the expansive stage. In one scene, Benjamin and Girl come across a carnival and actors situated above the stage pour down hundreds of brightly-colored balls while a previously unnoticed ring of red and orange Christmas lights comes alive along the balcony.
Unfortunately, the performance of the cast is less consistent. The two leads are backed by an exceptionally versatile ensemble of actors and actresses who snap effortlessly from one age or accent to another, simultaneously taking care of all the set changes as well. A.R.T./MXAT student Jason M. Beaubein in particular is a scene-stealer both as a shark-like office executive and a crazed French ringmaster.
Lyman and Strachan’s performances are less compelling. Benjamin has a youthful excitement from the outset that lacks any of the weariness that his character claims to experience after the eight years he’s spent at a dead-end job. There’s simply a disconnect between his delivery and the problems Benjamin professes to have.
When Lyman’s enthusiasm builds during Benjamin’s adventures, the performance borders on the campy; he prances around stage wearing bright red boots, a muscle shirt, and a veil tied around his waist like a skirt—elements that drift both in action and appearance from the aesthetic of the 1930s.
Although her performance as Girl improves as the play progresses, Strachan struggles initially to capture the love-struck nervousness of her character. During her first encounter with her boss, she misses a comedic opportunity and comes off more awkward than relatable. She seems much more comfortable as the strong, confident character that Girl becomes later. However, because she never quite convinces early on, this transformation is less than satisfying.
Despite the weaknesses of the two leads, “Stairs to the Roof” comes into it’s own in the last twenty minutes. The expertly choreographed ensemble uses elements of pantomime, slow motion, and Vaudevillian antics to highlight the strengths of Williams’ story. Although the ending of the play is shamelessly deus ex machina, it is done in a way that is genuinely surprising even in the context of an already unconventional production.
This vibrant re-envisioning of “Stairs” takes a lot of risks, yet nearly all of them pay off. The freshness and originality that is consistently present in the production is able to make an old and somewhat obscure play feel relevant and new again.