Tennessee Williams' Revived 'Stairs to the Roof' Opens Boo Cat Club with Imagination and Enthusiasm

By Krystin Arneson
In Culture

Monday is, by general consensus, the longest day of the week, but it’s even longer when you still have the freedom-seeking didact’s lines of “Stairs to the Roof: A Prayer for the Wild of Heart That are Kept in Cages” at the back of your brain. The last of playwright and St. Louisan Tenneesee Williams’ (“The Glass Menagerie,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “A Streetcar Named Desire”) early “apprentice” plays, the drama was completed in 1941. The Boo Cat Club’s revival is the first time it’s been staged since its premiere in 1947.

“Stairs to the Roof” image courtesy of the Boo Cat Clu

“Stairs to the Roof” image courtesy of the Boo Cat Club

Williams wrote the drama after he spent time working at International Shoes in St. Louis and suffered a subsequent nervous breakdown. Like his protagonist Benjamin Murphy, the robotic, mid-century corporate culture of the Establishment and the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit wasn’t for him.

Murphy, eight years out of college and unhappily married, is a junior employee at the Continental Branch of the Consolidated Shirtmakers Company and firmly believes that freedom is man’s essential right and character, and it is corporations such as CSC that strip them of their freedom for a salary, marriage and a comfortable life lived “behind lace curtains.” At the beginning, he’s the only one; his boss and colleagues are all under the spell of the Establishment. It’s only when he drunkenly befriends The Girl, his boss’ secretary, on a street corner, triggering a night of fantastical adventures, that he begins to loosen his shackles.

The Girl’s infatuation with her boss, her indirect catalyst for meeting Murphy, is the Establishment viewed through another lens. Her superior is the living embodiment of that same oppressive culture. Her infatuation also just as restrictive to her freedom and blinds her to what could be, and it takes a night adventuring with Murphy to transform her view.

It’s not one of Williams’ most mature works, but it gives a wonderful look inside his mind as a young writer. As a local theater blogger wrote, “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.” “Stairs to the Roof” captures those themes at a point in which Murphy, in his idealistic youth, can still stop those themes from manifesting.

In the years between the play’s completion and its debut, Williams matured; in the remarks in the program for the play’s Pasadena debut six years after its completion, he wrote, “I wish I still had the idealistic passion of [protagonist] Benjamin Murphy! You may smile as I do at the sometimes sophomoric aspect of his excitement, but I hope you will respect, as I do, the purity of his feeling and the honest concern which he had in his heart for the basic problem of mankind, which is to dignify our lives with a certain freedom.”

The play is not only notable for its long-overdue revival and the talent of the cast; what makes the performance extra-special is its venue and artistic direction. The newly restored Boo Cat Club at 812 Union Blvd. is both cozy and elegant—a bright fire quickly melted away the cold of Sunday’s matinee performance, while a grand piano was positioned in a brightly lit main room. More importantly, it was the site of where Williams performed his early work, according to artistic director Carrie Houk, whose uncles were acquainted with him. She makes amazing use of her resources, creativity and ingenuity to create a theatrical experience that, like Murphy, continues to surprise, excite and inspire the audience.

Catch it this week: “Stairs to the Roof” runs until Nov. 23 at the Boo Cat Club, 812 Union Blvd.

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