Though modern audiences are perhaps more familiar with the Tennessee Williams plays "The Glass Menagerie" and "A Streetcar Named Desire," the playwright’s own favorite drama from his body of work was the 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." A new production from Austin Shakespeare, playing through Dec. 2 in the Long Center’s Rollins Theatre, makes a compelling case for why this was so, by accentuating the nuance, complexity and simmering sexuality that is at the core of the text.
Though many of Williams’ plays take place over a period of days or weeks, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" unfolds over the course of one single evening. Indeed, in the version that director Ann Ciccolella has used for this production, the entire action unfolds in real time, with only a moment passing during the intermission.
It all occurs in the bedroom of Brick Pollitt and his wife, Maggie, on the large plantation estate owned by Brick’s father, whom everybody calls Big Daddy. As the evening progresses and conflict rises among members of the Pollitt family, the heat and stuffiness that the characters feel becomes a palpable tension in the air, a heady mix of lies, seduction, bitterness and recrimination that combine to make for what is rightfully a classic of the stage.
Ticking underneath the surface of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is the lingering doubts surrounding the death of Brick’s best friend, Skipper, and the reality of the relationship between the two young men. Traditionally, most productions take the position that Brick and Skipper were gay, or at least that they were sublimating a sexual attraction toward each other. Interestingly, as she states in her director’s notes, Ciccolella has taken a different path here, and in this version the tension arises more from Brick’s disgust with Maggie for suggesting that such a relationship existed, a suggestion that he blames for Skipper’s death.
Zac Thomas’ performance as Brick is the standout here, a slow burn that builds from spaced-out ambivalence to angry, begrudging acceptance. In this, he is perfectly counterbalanced by the extremely driven, almost manic energy of Gwendolyn Kelso as Maggie, a performance that is dripping with a seductive charm that finds no purchase upon Brick. Meanwhile, the stolid Ev Lunning Jr. as Big Daddy, and tragically optimistic Elise Ogden as Big Mama, provide a complementary (if older) vision of love and lust turned sour.
Austin Shakespeare’s "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is an excellent rendition of a justifiable classic, one that is not to be missed by fans of Tennessee Williams or of sexy, seedy family dramas.