Realism doesn't work with Tennessee Williams, nor do most kinds of stylization. His work requires a passionate, heightened, over-the-top romanticism from both cast and director. Unless you're swept away by the magic of the language, by the hyper-inflated and hugely sexualized emotion, these plays can seem hyperbolic and dated -- as does the current Vintage Theatre production, although it's also solid and sometimes even illuminating.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is Williams's vision of the South where he grew up, a damp, hot, evil place roiling with repressed sexuality, greed and hypocrisy. The focus is on an unhappily married couple, Brick and Maggie, who calls herself Maggie the Cat. She's a complex creature -- sexy, theatrical and manipulative -- and though she's deeply hurt by her husband's unrelenting anger toward her, she's sufficiently steely to both figure out a way to regain his affection and to ensure that the two of them inherit his father's wealth. Brick, a handsome former athlete, is attempting to drink himself into oblivion because of his role in the tragic death of a boyhood friend -- a friend he desired physically, although he will not and cannot admit it.
His father, Big Daddy, has a soft spot for Brick but hates his other son, Gooper, and is a monster of cruelty toward his wife, Big Mama. As the play opens, he thinks he's just been given a reprieve by his doctor: He's been told that the physical problems he suffers are the result of a spastic colon, when, in fact, he has metastatic cancer. Now that Big Daddy expects to live many more years, he feels free to tell his wife how much he despises her -- even to the point of hating her smell -- and to fantasize about buying sex from other women.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan Street
Presented by Vintage Theatre through March 11, 303-839-1361, www.vintagetheatre.com.
Gooper, his fertile wife, Mae, and their five children are presented by Williams as mere caricatures. Greedy for the old man's fortune, they flaunt their respectability and do everything possible to undermine Brick and Maggie. Mae and her children tend to erupt comically onto the stage whenever the action between Brick and Maggie or Brick and Big Daddy gets tense, and they're driven off with insults and threats.
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The only version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof I'd seen before was the movie starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, and it's astonishing how differently I understand the plot now that both the zeitgeist and my sense of the world have changed. For years I not only loved Williams's plays, but I completely accepted his worldview. Who wouldn't identify with his sad, beautiful outsiders -- the drunks, losers and poets -- and loathe the violence and chaos stirred up by a stultifying culture determined to obliterate them? You couldn't help wanting sexy Brick and Maggie to prevail over Gooper and Mae when Brick was played by the young and explosively talented Paul Newman. Watching the film, I perceived that Big Daddy was awful in the same cruel ways that Brick was awful -- but at least he was larger than life, and suffering, and real. Besides, he was really only abusive toward Mae and Big Mama, and women like that were made to be abused.
But as I watched Vintage Theatre's earthbound production, I was surprised to find that my reaction to the play has shifted -- perhaps because times have changed, perhaps because director Craig A. Bond intended to provide a more balanced experience. Brick's silences now seem more like passive aggression than the mark of a deep and tortured soul. I wonder if there's a flesh-and-blood woman on earth who'd stick by Big Daddy for any reason except his money. And I can't help but think that if I possessed 28,000 of the richest acres in the Mississippi Delta, I'd definitely leave them to sane and sober Goober rather than self-destructive Brick.
The cast is workmanlike. There's nothing wrong with Joseph C. Wilson's Big Daddy, but he isn't the monster of pain and greed he should be. David Harms as Gooper and Linda Williams as Mae are given only a couple of moments of humanity by the playwright -- when Gooper laments that Big Daddy has never loved him, when Mae tenderly leads a sleepy little girl to the bedroom -- and they make the most of them. Addison Parker and Lisa DeCaro, who play Brick and Maggie, are attractive and talented; DeCaro gets stronger and stronger as the play progresses, and Parker is a fine young actor, as darkly handsome as you'd want Brick to be, with a delightfully cheeky and malicious grin that's seen far too infrequently. But he never generates the tension required by the part. If Brick isn't dangerous, if you're not afraid for Maggie when he lunges at her with his crutch, something essential leaks out of a play that should come across as a paean to the life force itself.