Stairs to the Roof, Griffin Theatre Company. History repeats itself, they say--the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. But with Tennessee Williams, apparently, it's the opposite: this early play begins like a comic version of The Glass Menagerie, satirizing both its artist protagonist and the factory work he's desperate to escape. The script thuds to earth in the second act, however, when the playwright tries out notions about freedom without ever finding one that's satisfactory. Dealing in fantasy and illusion, which serves Williams so well in evoking his characters' past, just seems arch when applied to present action.
Director Bill Burnett and assistant Ian Novak give the play a smart, graceful production, and the ensemble moves as if to dance to the music of Williams's words. From the opening scene, which makes each actor a cog in the factory machine, the directors employ the performers' bodies to set both scene and pace. If this device is less successful in act two, that's because so much of it features only Williams's alter ego and the Girl. Lori Garrabrant is wonderfully touching in this role, Timothy Smith navigates his character's inexplicable turns from impotence to swagger with considerable grace, and they're supported by a terrific ensemble (Matthew Lon Walker as the evil Mr. Gumm deserves a special nod). But the evening remains essentially a curiosity.