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Stairs to the Roof
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Fred Abrahamse
Sudden View Productions
November 7, 2014

Em Piro, Paul Cereghino Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com Sudden View Productions

Em Piro, Paul Cereghino
Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com
Sudden View Productions

A new theatre company in St. Louis has staged an early, little-performed play by a legendary playwright in a beautifully restored venue with a historic theatrical past, and the result is stunning.  With glittering visuals, a cast studded with local stars, and a bright, shiny new performance space, Stairs to the Roof sparkles.  Under the leadership of Artistic Director Carrie Houk, director Fred Abrahamse and designer Marcel Meyer, Sudden View Productions has brought an exciting production to the stage with ties to St. Louis’s past and hopeful promises for its artistic future.

Stairs to the Roof  has only been performed professionally in the US once before, at the Pasadena Playhouse in California in 1947.  Since then, it has been given a few overseas and student productions, but Sudden View has produced its reintroduction to the professional stage in this country. It’s fitting that that “re-premiere” would be in St. Louis, where Williams spent much of his youth, and the play pays homage to the city in a big way, taking its characters to several prominent locations throughout the city.  It has a more hopeful tone than a lot of Williams’s more well-known plays, which seem to be characterized by a sense of regret and longing for unfulfilled dreams.  Here, the longing is there, and moments of regret, but the overall tone is of breaking out of the cycle of regret and looking to the future.  The cast of characters is large, with many performers playing two, three and more roles, and the tone of the play ranges from dark comedy to romance to fantasy, with elements of dance and circus performance thrown in at moments. It’s an “everything but the kitchen sink” kind of play that often seems more like Thornton Wilder than Tennessee Williams, and there are some cliched characters (the cartoonishly shrewish wives, for instance), although for the most part it’s a fascinating story and an enlightening glimpse into the mind and talent of the then-aspiring young Williams.

The tagline on the program calls the play “a prayer for the wild of heart who are kept in cages”. In this story, the “wild of heart” protagonist is Benjamin Murphy (Paul Cereghino), a once-idealistic young man who has toiled for eight years as a cog in the monochromatic, conformist machine of the Continental Branch of the Consolidated Shirtmakers company.  Lately, however, Ben has begun to rattle the doors of his “cage”, writing poetry on his work breaks and discovering a hidden staircase that leads to the roof of the office building, where Ben can look out over the city and feel just a little bit of freedom for the few moments. His bright turquoise cowboy boots and hat make him stand out from his buttoned-down, black-and-white clad co-workers, and his boss, Mr. Gum (Peter Mayer) isn’t happy.  When Gum informs Ben that his job is at risk, Ben is then driven on a 24 hour odyssey of self-discovery and exploration as he confronts his suspicious wife Alma (Cooper Shaw), his jaded college buddy Jim (John Krewson), and figures from his own past. A parallel story follows an unnamed woman referred to in the script solely as The Girl (Em Piro), who embarks on her own journey as she deals with her own unhappiness at work and her unrequited love for her distracted boss (Drew Battles). Inevitably, Ben’s and The Girl’s journeys intersect and they spend a memorable evening of adventure in Forest Park that has repercussions on their future, both together and as individuals.  Meanwhile, a mysterious figure called Mr. E. (Reginald Pierre), hovers in the background reacting the the events around him, but is he just an observer or is he something more?

There’s a lot going on in this play, and my nutshell description doesn’t begin to cover everything that goes on.  The cast large case is uniformly excellent, and the two leads, Cereghino and Piro, are ideally cast.  Cereghino has an earnest charm with a hint of cynicism, and he brings the audience along on his journey with style.  He is well matched by Piro, who brings a great deal of depth to her role as The Girl, who is rechristened “Alice”–after Alice of Wonderland fame–by Ben.  Piro portrays an “Alice” whose sense of wonder gradually and surely grows, and her halting, reticent sadness from early in the play fades into an impulsive confidence spurred on by her experiences and by Cereghino’s Ben. These two make an appealing pair, and they are supported ably by the excellent ensemble, with notable performances by Mayer and Battles as the bosses, Krewson as Ben’s unhappy buddy Jim, and Pierre as the mysterious and occasionally menacing Mr. E.  There’s also excellent, evocative dancing from Clayton Cunningham and Elizabeth Lloyd. This cast is too huge to mention everyone, but everyone does an excellent job in multiple smaller roles, from the cog-like workers in the shirt factory to the performers in the park, and more.  The heart of the play, however, is with Piro and Cereghino, and they manage to carry the overall sense of wonder and romance, as well as the initial despair, remarkably well.

Another crucial element to the success of this production is its incredibly cohesive and atmospheric design, with sets and costumes designed by Meyer with a whimsical 1940s flair. From the shiny, streamlined Art Deco-influenced factory set to the evocations of St. Louis locales from Wash U’s Brookings Hall to the Zoo and elsewhere, the overall effect is similar to watching a colorful, classic movie, with some fun little additions like bright blue whiskey in the bar scenes.  The costumes are of a decidedly 40’s style, from the more severe black-and-white suits of the factory to Piro’s ethereal pink dress, to Mr. E’s dapper white suit and Ben’s open-collared shirt, cowboy boots and and hat, and some striking choices like outfitting a group of corporate executives in black-trimmed white tuxes with high-heeled shoes.  The stage is framed with shiny, metallic trim, and it all fits well in the newly renovated space at the BooCat Club.  There’s also some excellent lighting work by Patrick Huber, casting a magical air on the odyssey through the park and shining starkly bright in the more cold, mechanical mood of the factory, as well as a dreary darkness to the scenes with Ben and Jim and their respective (but almost interchangeable) wives.

After the performance, artistic director Houk stood on stage and talked of the ambitious plans Sudden View has for upcoming productions, including a Tennessee Williams Festival, before being presented by a representative from the mayor’s office with a proclamation declaring the day as Tennessee Williams Day.  It was acknowledgment of the links to the St. Louis’s historic past, on a stage in a venue with ties to Williams and and the city’s theatrical history in its days as the St. Louis Artist Guild.  With such a glorious new production in an elegant, richly restored venue and with so much talent and vision behind it, Stairs to the Roof is more than just a fantastically entertaining production.  It’s a bold celebration of theatre history and artistic ambition, making for a truly memorable experience.

Mikaiah Krueger, Em Piro, Paul Cereghino Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com Sudden View Productions

Elizabeth Lloyd, Em Piro, Paul Cereghino
Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com
Sudden View Productions

 

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