As far as I'm concerned, places like Workshop Theatre exist to perform the works of writers like Tennessee Williams. Colleges will always revive the classics from Shakespeare's era and earlier, high schools will keep alive the great family musicals and comedies, and regional theatre can be counted on to perform the latest cutting edge shows from New York. For the better part of the 20th century, however, serious dramas by the great writers of contemporary theatre were the big Broadway hits, and none were bigger than Williams. The first show I ever saw on my own as a teen (i.e. not taken by a parent or a friend's family, or as part of a school field trip) was William's Glass Menagerie, at Workshop, back when you could prop your feet on the stage if you sat in the cramped first row. Workshop’s latest production of Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a serviceable rendition of the author's account of a Southern family best by "mendacity;" while not exactly forging any new dramatic territory or uncovering any new meaning, the show is a nice reminder of why we still revere the playwright.
Williams takes many of his favorite themes (greed, manipulation, sexuality - both repressed and overt - class struggle, alcoholism), divvies them up among some stock character types (forceful older man, brooding and tortured younger man, vivacious beauty) and sets them loose on a hot summer night in the Mississippi Delta, when passions run high and secrets are revealed. Which sounds a lot like a typical episode of Dallas (which ironically featured the original Maggie actress, Barbara Bel Geddes, as the saintly Miss Ellie.) But that was how influential Williams has been: just about every tale of Southern Gothic family dysfunction owes something to him. Matters come to a boil on this particular night due to a convergence of circumstances: the Pollitt family is gathered for the 65th birthday of patriarch Big Daddy (Hunter Boyle), who thinks he has finally been given a clean bill of health. His children know the truth, that he’s dying of cancer, and has made no will. Younger son Brick (Jason Stokes), a brooding, alcoholic ex-athlete, is particularly vulnerable, one foot in a cast due to a drunken attempt to recapture former glory on the track of the local high school. Older son Gooper (Charlie Goodrich) and wife Mae (Jennifer Simmons) see this as an occasion to make sure Big Daddy's estate (over $10 million, and "twenty-eight thousand acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile") ends up in their hands. The "cat" of the title, Brick's wife Maggie (Elisabeth Gray Heard) is exhausted from keeping up the pretense of a happy marriage. We see her cattiness when she observes that Mae and Gooper’s children all have names like dogs (Dixie, Trixie, etc.) yet just like cat chased up a tree by dogs, Maggie is at wit’s end as her adversaries close in.
Maggie is one of the great stage roles for any actress, and Heard doesn't disappoint. I had forgotten how much Maggie dominates the first third of the play, her lines almost a continuous soliloquy only occasionally punctuated by Brick's occasional, terse comments. It's awfully hard to root for a woman whose main goal is for her undeserving husband to inherit his father's wealth, but root for her you do, since she has Williams writing her lines. As the supporting cast enters, one by one, taking focus, we feel Maggie's growing frustration and isolation, until at the play's end she makes one last crazy gamble to take back control of the play, and her life. Heard looks more than a little like the young Kathleen Turner, one of many stage Maggies over the years, and she's a treat to watch. Note: she alternates in this role with Samantha Elkins, who will be featured in the final week of the show's run, starting Sun. March 25th, so the 23rd and 24th are the last nights to catch Heard.
Boyle brings an interesting and non-traditional interpretation to the role of the coarse, forceful, self-made millionaire Big Daddy. (While the character's name is certainly symbolic, the reality of Southern nicknames is probably simpler: when the first grandchild was born, he surely became "Big Daddy," i.e. grandfather.) Boyle uses a faster-paced, higher-pitched delivery than one might expect; it's the same voice in which we recall Strother Martin drawling "What we have he-yah is a fail-ya to communicate..." Big Daddy has a lot of laugh lines, ones that might have been missed had Boyle used a sterner, gruffer delivery. Instead, Boyle intimidates with sudden outbursts of anger and peremptory commands rather than sustained bluster. As Brick, Stokes is like a poster child for the axiom "depression is rage turned inward." Much of the time he has few lines, and instead must yield focus first to Heard, then Boyle, but nevertheless carries his half of the scene, even if largely in silence. A friend seated closer to the stage than I noticed the physicality of his performance, such as the veins in his arms protruding at moments of anger. The character is somewhat one-note as written, and basically has to suffer and smolder for over two hours, but Stokes really commits to his role; you can follow the other characters for five or ten minutes, then glance back at Stokes on the sidelines and know that he will being doing exactly what you expect. He and Heard manage to bring out many of the complexities and subtle contradictions found in Brick and Maggie: they claim to hate each other, yet, there is still clearly affection, admiration, and a sweetly disturbing co-dependence. There's no question that Brick's last-minute realization/declaration that he is still alive is directly inspired by similar bursts of vitality from his wife and father.
Some of the show's symbolism may seem a bit heavy-handed by today's standards: Bricks staggers falls and repeatedly cries for his crutch; he means the wooden one, but he's heading towards the bar, for another glass of the crutch that gets him through each day. Cancer is eating away at Big Daddy just as greed and lies eat away at the soul of his family. Fireworks go off in celebration of Big Daddy's birthday, just as verbal fireworks explode on stage. Characters often navigate a long curving porch that surrounds the set to make an entrance, just as the Pollitts often take great pains to skirt around unspoken issues. Set in Brick and Maggie's bedroom, most of the action is centered around a large bed which dominates the stage, just as marriage and family life is ...well, you get the idea.
Director Amy Boyce Holtcamp's main challenges are to keep the action running at a lively pace in a show confined to one small space, and to make sure that nothing seems too dated, both of which she accomplishes. Randy Strange's set is the type at which he excels: ultra-detailed and realistic. I especially liked how even the corners of the stage are used effectively, with an exterior upstairs porch/gallery located diagonally, suggesting the huge plantation below. The great Williams sets in the 50's made use of translucent scrims in place of actual walls, so that the audience can see what's going on outside a door or window, and that effect is recreated here. Whoever did the actual set dressing has quite the flair for interior design, with dark sturdy wood, rich red patterned upholstery and fabric, all emphasizing the wealth and seeming genteel respectability of the Pollitt family. Even little things, like ornate half-moon windows over some doors, transoms over others, and Chinese lanterns out on the gallery, make for a believable Southern mansion.
Modern audiences may find this play a bit static, as there is mainly talk, minimal action, and no real resolution to many of the issues that are raised (especially a tragic love triangle from years earlier, involving Brick's best friend, that could be an entire play on its own.) Dr. Phil and Oprah could resolve most of the central conflicts in minutes, splitting the estate between the brothers, sending Brick off to the Betty Ford Clinic (where he might also confront his sexuality) and encouraging the resourceful Maggie to strike out on her own. Still, the point of this or any Williams play is not so much action but rather emotion, brought to life on stage through the incredible poetry of his language. No actual person could ever be as vivid and eloquent as Maggie or Big Daddy, but Williams manages to replicate just enough of the rhythms and vocabulary of normal speech to make everything believable. Ultimately, Workshop’s revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a faithful and straightforward production of one of the great works of modern theatre, from one of its greatest authors.
The show runs through Sat. March 31st; contact the box office at 799-4876 for ticket information.
Reach August at AKrickel@JasperColumbia.com
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