By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
This is not your father's Tennessee.
EgoPo's brilliant and hilarious second show in their season of "American Giants" is Tennessee Williams' early, unknown play, Stairs to the Roof.
Having flunked ROTC, Williams was yanked out of college by his father who forced him to take a factory job; these years as a "petty wage-earner" gave him a strong sense of rebellion against mindless drudgery and would eventually give us Tom, the narrator of The Glass Menagerie. But before there was Tom, there was Ben (the outstanding Craig O'Brien), "the Hamlet of Continental Shirtmakers," who discovers the literal and metaphoric stairs to the roof of the office building.
He goes up there to escape (like the great tragic characters who will follow in later plays, the need to escape and the futility of escape is always the engine of life and drama in Tennessee). The plot thickens with desperate love (the lovely Lauren Berman) and bizarre nighttime adventures (wait for the swan).
The numbing routines of the office, controlled by Mr. Gum (Matthew Weil), combine with the crushing domestic routines of all these adventurous but now married young men who graduated in the class of 1934, to stifle the "wild incredible fact that we're alive." The Depression couldn't have helped much either, nor the run-up to yet another world war. It will turn out that the cosmos is controlled by a Mr. E (the very funny Christopher Marlow Roche).
Protesting against being "caged," Ben leads a revolution against the reduction of life to "arithmetic." (The show's original title was "A Prayer for the Wild of Heart That are Kept in Cages," which could be the title of most of Williams' plays.)
It is here that the show's spirited ensemble—a combination of Rowen theater students (current and alums) and professional actors—shines. Kudos where kudos are due: Dexter Anderson, AJ Klein, Katie Knoblock, Jenna Kuerzi, Rachel O'Hanlon Rodriguez, Dana Orange, Michael Pliskin, Angela Smith, Andy Spinosi, Ileana Fortuno, Constanze Keller. Precision timing plus amusing schtick: speed where needed, slo-mo where needed, over-the-top where needed (wait for the "Beauty and the Beast" carnival pageant).
Behind the excellence of the cast lies the excellence of the director; Lane Savadove has brought his inventive, goofy imagination to a text that could easily bog down in socio-political speechifying and gloom, and whipped this forgotten script into terrific theater. Cheers for the designers, too: Dan Soule's sets, Robin I Shane's costumes and Robert Carlton's travellin' music.
And just as the Mars project is making news today, so this weirdly prescient show ends with a plan to "colonize a star": never underestimate the relevance of a great writer.
EgoPo Classic Theater at the Latvian Society, 7th & Spring Garden Sts. Through March 1. Tickets $25. Information: 267-273-1414 or egopo.org