Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
A challenging, mixed-race production of the Tennessee Williams play exposes the unspoken
Published: November 9, 2011
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
By Tennessee Williams
At Load of Fun Theater through Nov. 27
“Tennessee Williams saved my life,” John Waters admitted in his introduction to Williams’ Memoirs. “I yearned for a bad influence,” he wrote, “and boy, was Tennessee one in the best sense of the word: joyous, alarming, sexually confusing and dangerously funny.” The same subversive qualities that run through the bluer, “bad” Tennessee Williams that so appealed to Waters are also at the core of his best-loved work. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof belongs to this other camp—the “good” Tennessee—but this collaboration by Heralds of Hope Theater and the Theatrical Mining Company proves that its claws are still sharp. The play tears the sheets off mid-1950s domesticity, exposing the psychodrama of necessary lies and the deafness that sustains them.
The first scene takes us straight to the bedroom shared by the sultry Maggie (Lauren Blackwell) and her husband Brick Pollitt (Michael Page) at the grand estate of the Pollitt clan in the Mississippi Delta. It’s the night of a birthday party for the family patriarch, Big Daddy (Percy W. Thomas), and there’s a sense of unease in the house that hangs as close as the summer heat. Brick, a former football hero, is knocking back highballs and limping around with a crutch after a night of drunken hijinks on the high school athletic field. He’s gone soft with booze and grown distant from Maggie, leaving her unloved and, worse, unsatisfied. Softness, it turns out, is exactly the problem: Maggie hasn’t had a child yet, and it’s not for want of trying. Brick just hasn’t wanted to sleep with her, hasn’t wanted to do much besides drink, since the suicide of his best friend Skipper. And yes, the nature of Brick’s relationship with Skipper (and Maggie’s relationship with Skipper, it happens) has got everything to do with the cool temperature of the conjugal bed. The family is beginning to catch on.
What goes on between a wildly libidinous woman and her sexually confused husband in the privacy of their own bedroom on his family’s estate wouldn’t be of so much interest if money weren’t involved. Big Daddy thinks he has brought home a clean bill of health from the doctor, but no one has the courage to tell him or Big Mama (Penny S. Demps) on the night of his birthday celebration that he is dying rapidly of cancer. Without a child, Maggie and Brick stand to be gypped out of their inheritance by Brick’s brother Gooper (Warren Watson) and his wife Mae (Raina Dewald), who has some feline aggression of her own. Maggie the Cat has traveled too far from poverty, endured too much, to give that money up so easily. She’s desperate, and at the same time determined to stay with Brick—determined not to jump off the hot tin roof but to stand the heat as long as she can. “You can be young without money,” Maggie says, “but you can’t be old without it.” It’s this sort of calculation that makes her a much wiser character than her kittenish demeanor lets on. Needless to say, with all the lies and bad blood circulating through the Pollitt house, things get much worse before they get better.
With its mixed-race cast, this production interrogates not only the idealized American family but the American South. That Big Daddy is played by an actor who is black, and that he is “the Delta’s biggest cotton planter” in what is ostensibly the era of Jim Crow, invests an added layer of significance to his rise from peon to patriarch and a sense of urgency to his insistence on self-preservation. Percy W. Thomas is extraordinary; once he appears as Big Daddy—virile, cigar in hand, loud as hell—it’s suddenly impossible to imagine how the banjo-strumming bowl of jelly Burl Ives could have ever fit the bill for the 1958 film version. Thomas ignites Page’s Brick in the act-long showdown between them, and together they nearly bring the house down. Blackwell is a firecracker, her breathy purrs giving way to the forceful yells of a woman “consumed with envy and eaten up with longing.” Dewald’s Mae isn’t afraid to scratch, and when Gooper finally drops his facade of humility in Act 3, Watson goes full spittle-and-red-face. Penny is the most affecting of all as the beleaguered Big Mama, sweet as butterscotch one minute and hysterical the next, struggling to make sense of the men in her life and unable to keep her family from devouring itself.
Director Barry Feinstein and set designer Prince NO-RA make such effective use of the black-box space at Load of Fun Theater that it seems like the only way the play should be staged. There’s a foregrounding of certain intensely solitary moments—Brick’s contemplation on the balcony and Big Daddy’s anguish as he overhears his family fall apart—that gives the audience a sense of unasked-for intimacy with the strife unfolding before them on stage. We can’t look away even if we want to, and that’s what Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is all about: facing the truth, accepting your condition, speaking the unspoken.
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