The Cat's Pajamas

The Tennessee Williams-style Southern family, at its liquor-soaked, lust-ridden, and venal best, rises again in Kendall this month in a spirited production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Actors' Playhouse presents Williams's modern classic in all its comedic and Southern Gothic glory, 40 years after its Broadway debut. The overtones of homosexuality, impotence, and incest that rattled audiences in the 1950s barely ruffle today's viewers. Yet the drama endures because the emotional anguish at the core of the author's characters hoists the play beyond melodrama. Understanding this anguish completely, director David Arisco conducts a solid ensemble of actors through three engrossing acts, highlighted by John Felix's pull-out-all-the-stops performance as the voracious Big Daddy.

Tennessee Williams's influence on contemporary writing -- dramatic and otherwise -- cannot be underestimated. Using the poignant repressions and frustrations of his early life as a launching pad, he transmuted autobiography into art in half a dozen significant plays that mesmerized theatergoers from the 1940s through the early 1960s. The revelations of family deception and abuse that increasingly informed his work are now standard fare in much of our current literature. While the passage of time has muted the shock value of homosexuality, debauchery, and even cannibalism that Williams's work explored, his best plays, including The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, weather the years for the same reason that so much contemporary autobiographical playwriting falls short. Capable of both shimmering lyricism and saber-toothed sharpness, Williams focused less on the psychological dissection of why his characters act as they do and more on conveying their emotional and spiritual pain. Not concerned with laying blame, he attempts, as he wrote in the original text of Cat, "to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent A fiercely charged! A interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis."

A maelstrom of crisis pervades Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Structured as a series of confrontations among members of the prosperous yet blighted Pollitt family, the drama takes place entirely in a hallway, a bedroom suite, and its surrounding terraces over the course of a summer night. The drama scrutinizes the disintegrating marriage of Brick Pollitt (Tom Wahl), former star athlete and current alcoholic, and his frustrated wife, Maggie (Hilary Kacser). "Consumed," as she describes herself, "with envy and eaten up with longing," Maggie implores Brick to tell the truth about the "suicide" death of his best friend, to make love to her, and to claim the inheritance his brother, Gooper (George Contini), and sister-in-law, Mae (Kate Denson), plot to snatch from him. But Brick, one arm clutching a crutch, a broken ankle in a cast, and a hand wrapped around a highball glass, prefers to pickle himself rather than face the realities Maggie insists upon. Meanwhile, downstairs the family celebrates the 65th birthday of Big Daddy (Brick and Gooper's father), perpetuating the patriarch's self-delusion about his good health. By the time the family ascends to Maggie and Brick's bedroom at the beginning of act two, the audience has been primed for the unveiling of a lifetime of lies.

The choice role of Maggie, the only character capable of standing outside the family and pinpointing the truth, offers an actress opportunities to showcase her craft. Act one, for example, requires the character to deliver a veritable monologue in the face of her husband's indifference. The portrayal demands a combination of intensity and subtlety. "I've become hard, frantic, and cruel," Maggie admits, yet below that veneer prowls a sensualist who refuses to give up on love with her husband, despite the cavernous distance between them.

Kacser looks like dynamite in the part. She moves voluptuously, and no matter how many times her Maggie changes strategies for waking Brick from his booze-induced walking coma -- appealing to him through gossip, insult, praise, or stirring up painful memories -- her single-mindedness never wavers. The actress is especially chilling in little-girl mode, capitalizing on Big Daddy's lechery. Her performance suffers somewhat from a lack of true passion, however; shrill and stealthy determination overrides the sensuality in Maggie's soul.

Apathetic and voyeuristic, Maggie's emotionally frozen husband also presents a dramatic challenge, but for an entirely different reason. An actor must nail down the impassive and enigmatic qualities of a character incapable of taking action. Tom Wahl delivers a convincingly dissipated performance and, in a critical scene with Big Daddy in which it's impossible to determine whether Brick is being kind or cruel, Wahl embodies the character's essential slipperiness. In other places, however, the actor succumbs to the pitfalls of the role, and his spectral Brick lacks precision and definition, remaining a vague presence who never elucidates why he turns back toward Maggie at the end.

In counterpoint to his son's disinterest in life, Big Daddy can't keep himself from acting upon the people around him; he mows them down, leaving damaged family members in his wake, to be picked over by lesser mortals. As the Southern patriarch, John Felix roars across the stage, his presence riveting, whether waxing philosophic about the nature of life to Brick or spewing vitriol at Big Mama, his wife. Perhaps the most frightening aspect of Felix's performance, and certainly what makes it extraordinary, is how charming he makes the dissolute, salacious old goat. Such appeal marks Big Daddy as a truly dangerous man.

Ellen Simmons (Big Mama) blends elegance and giddiness in an over-the-top but utterly believable portrayal. Her insistence that everything is fine and that Big Daddy does not mean one word of the hateful invective he flings at her is perversely reassuring -- and as perilous as Big Daddy's need for control. Kate Denson displays expert comic timing as the hypocritical and bitchy Mae, a.k.a. Sister Woman, while George Contini brings new dimension to the usually thankless role of Brother Man Gooper, the sibling spurned by father, mother, and brother. Yes, Gooper schemes to connive Brick and Maggie out of 28,000 acres, but Contini's Gooper suffers so much rejection, and his plans appear so clear-eyed and realistic, you almost see his point of view.

David Trimble's scenic design and Andrea Wilson's lighting blend realism and surrealism according to Williams's intention. Trimble grounds the drama's bedroom setting with solid columns, dominates center stage with an enormous bed, and places a multicolored sky behind the set. When the sky's light shifts with the waning day or with a roiling thunderstorm, the set appears to float, increasing the sense of impending peril that pervades the play.

Although Arisco confidently directs his actors in larger-than-life gestures across the full sweep of the theater's stage, including an extended proscenium that serves as a gallery encircling the Pollitt house, at times the busy scrambling proves distracting. When the family gathers together, a frenzied quality ensues, as if the clan's unwieldy emotions extend beyond Arisco's control. Additionally, when I saw the play on opening night, the cast and production crew were finding their sea legs. Dialogue overlapped, and certain scene changes lacked clarity. But I'll accept rough-hewn quality anytime in exchange for energy and intelligence, both of which amply drive this engaging production.


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