Sex, lies and Southern comfort in this Tennessee Williams classic
The fur is flying in Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the Players in a Two Chairs Theatre Company production. It’s a jaundiced look at Southern family values in the mid 20th century—and the mendacity that keeps those values in place.
The play unfolds on a sweltering summer night on a sprawling plantation in the Mississippi Delta in the 1950s. Big Daddy (Allen Kretschmar) is the bullying, bullheaded patriarch in charge. Big Mama (Lynne Doyle) has gathered the family to celebrate his 65th birthday. Their eldest son Gooper (Ross Boehringer) and his wife, Mae, (Lauren Ward) are scheming to take the place over. And they’re concealing Big Daddy’s inoperable cancer diagnosis, at least until he signs the papers. Their youngest son, Brick (Raphael Petlock), is a fading football legend who spends his days nursing a broken ankle, drinking and rejecting the advances of his nubile wife, Maggie (Kathryn Parks). She wants Brick to focus on the inheritance—and her. All that sexual frustration makes Maggie feel like a cat on a hot tin roof. Besides which, Big Daddy might favor them with an inheritance if they favored him with a grandchild. Not bloody likely. Brick blames Maggie for the death of his best friend, Skipper, and he refuses to sleep with her. Skipper’s affections for Brick were more than friendly. While Brick won’t admit it, the attraction was probably mutual.
After 60 years and many strange changes, this Pulitzer Prize-winning play still holds up. Williams has a flawless ear for Southern patois, and the machinations of highly articulate, strong-willed Southerners butting heads. Under Elliott Raines’ taut direction, it plays like a high-stakes prize fight in three rounds.
The play’s focus shifts between three central characters: Maggie (aka Maggie the Cat), Big Daddy and Brick. Maggie’s monologs fill most of the first act. (Brick spends most of the time drinking, sulking and occasionally trying to whack her with his crutch.) Parks’ bravura performance makes it work. Her character is a smart, tough-minded, seriously sexy woman who knows exactly what she wants—and isn’t shy about saying it.
Kretschmar’s Big Daddy dominates the second act. It’s a nuanced portrayal revealing the character’s depths. He’s a self-made man, erupting with scorn for his codependent brood and their constant lies, flattery and manipulation. But his youngest child is spared these tongue lashings; Brick is the favorite son. Even so, Big Daddy insists on digging down to the truth behind his impotence and alcoholism. Father and son go round and round. Petlock’s Brick has mostly been an absence up to this point. Under Big Daddy’s questions, he ultimately reveals the source of his pain. Petlock’s sensitive, underplayed performance avoids any tear-jerky melodrama and makes the big revelation work. Big Daddy reacts to the truth with surprising tolerance and insight. Brick reciprocates by sharing the truth of Big Daddy’s cancer diagnosis. This time, the bullish patriarch doesn’t respond so well.
Excellent performances from the leads, as well as the supporting cast. Lynne Doyle plays Big Mama like Minnie Pearl’s louder cousin. Boehringer’s Gooper is a practiced hypocrite whose mask only occasionally slips. Ward’s Mae, on the other hand, snarls with naked avarice. Their three children are supposed to be brats; Tori Greenlaw, Catalina Mia Grieco and Grayson Piccirillo pull it off nicely (I’m sure they’re wonderful kids in real life). Great comic performances, too, from Twig Webster, Jean-Paul Monde and Paul Hutchison.
Once again, the Two Chairs acting troupe creates brilliant, vivid theater from the sound and fury of Williams’ words. But what do the verbal fireworks add up to? Fortunately, I don’t have to guess. Williams once wrote that he wanted to evoke, “that cloudy, flickering, effervescent interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis.”
This fearless production draws you into the heart of the storm.