It is a great pleasure to revel in the worlds that Tennessee Williams creates. His characters are indelible and his language luscious. Whether his plays were commercial hits or failures, there is always something that moves an audience.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1955, is one his biggest successes. The action takes place in the bed-sitting room of a plantation home in the Mississippi Delta. The plantation is enormous. As Big Daddy (Mike McShane), the patriarch of the place, likes to boast, it is “twenty-eight thousand-acres of th’ richest land this side of the Valley Nile!” It is the evening of a hot summer day and a family has gathered to celebrate Big Daddy’s birthday.
At lights up, Maggie (Linda Park), enters and slips out of her child-stained dress. Her husband, Brick (Daniel Bess), hobbles in with his leg in a cast from the knee down, a single crutch under his arm, and a towel wrapped around his waist. There is something off about this couple. Maggie is a beauty, hot and sensuous. A former athlete and college football hero, Brick is still a fine physical specimen, but he is cool and detached with Maggie. He is a drinker, and the night before, infused with booze, he tried running hurdles at the high school track, fell, and broke his ankle. Throughout this production, Brick returns again and again to the room’s sidebar to pour yet another tumbler of whiskey, imbibing an enormous amount of liquor trying to achieve that click that shuts down his racing brain. Brick has no interest in Maggie, who is desperate for his love. His alcoholic brooding is fueled by grief over the death of his best friend and teammate, Skipper.
Big Daddy is a lordly force of nature. On this particular evening, he is irascible with those around him, even though he has received some good news. After tests and exploratory surgery, he has been informed that he doesn’t have the cancer he feared. He is short with his wife, Big Mama (Julia Fletcher), and merely tolerates his oldest son, Gooper (Michael Kirby), a spineless type who connives to succeed his father in the event of death. Gooper’s wife, Mae (Tamara Krinsky), mother of five and huge with the imminent birth of number six, hates Maggie, who refers to her children (represented by Henry Greenspan as Buster and Eliza LeMoine as Polly) as “no-neck monsters.” Also attending the birthday celebration are Reverend Tooker (Mitchell Edmonds)and Doctor Baugh (Robert Pine).
The three-act play takes place in real time, save for the two short intermissions. The audience can hear a hall clock play the “Westminster Chimes” and then a peal of the hour as the action moves forward in the evening. If Maggie dominates the first-act, the second act belongs to Big Daddy. The birthday celebration moves into Brick and Maggie’s room, where the plot thickens, the language gets rough, and the action increases in tension and brutality. Mike McShane dominates the stage, delivering a titanic performance of raw emotional power. The final act does what it must, coming to a satisfying climax and relaxing into dénoument.
Director Cameron Watson keeps the action fast paced and nuanced. Steven C. Kemp’s set design (lighting by Jared A. Sayeg) with its tilted windows and damaged crown molding, conveys a certain sense of Southern decay. Costumes by Terri A. Lewis are ideal for the characters and suggest a time not our own. The props design is by Erin Walley, who keeps the liquor flowing and the bucket full of ice. The sound design by Jeff Gardner features a fine selection of jazz recordings leading in and out of the acts. Dialect coach Tracy Winters helps the cast deliver an authentic sound of the South.
The American classic, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is an excellent choice to inaugurate Antaeus Theatre Company’s new home in Glendale. With a great cast (“The Hoppin’ Johns”), a sterling production and a commodious performance space, all bodes well. Please note that in keeping with Antaeus tradition there are two casts performing on alternating nights. The other cast is called “The Buttered Biscuits.” In a departure from tradition, there is no third cast drawn from the other two casts this time.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs through May 7 at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 East Broadway in Glendale.