Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Presented by Boiler Room Theatre
Through Sept. 13 at the Factory at Franklin
When I first got wind that Boiler Room Theatre, typically known for its devotion to musical theater, was taking on Tennessee Williams, I was skeptical. The Franklin company has mounted a couple of straight plays in its two-and-a-half-year history, with mixed results. The prospect of a Williams work, with all its steamy emotionalism and bigger-than-life characters, crowded into BRT’s intimate, music-hall-like venue seemed a potentially dim one. The question had to be asked: Are these musical-comedy actors versatile enough to shed their hats and canes and get into Southern Gothic?
The surprise answer is yes. The new production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, under the direction of Laura Green, is by no means perfect, but it’s a satisfyingly consistent reading that reaffirms Williams as a bona fide tale-teller and introduces us to the serious acting talents of Kelly Allen, whose sensitively wrought lead performance is one of quiet restraint and beauty.
Director Green also designed the set, which wisely stresses functionality rather than attempting to re-create the grandeur of a huge mansion. The single bed-sitting room works well enough as the center of activity. Every pertinent conversation in the house takes place here on a summer evening in 1955; Brick Pollitt is holed up in the room, drinking booze unrelentingly and hobbling about with his leg in a cast after recently attempting to relive some athletic heroics on the old high school playing field. Gauzy back-flats allow us a see-through view to the balcony beyond, which at least hints at the plantation estate’s size28,000 acres of prime Mississippi Delta land.
It is clear why, in its time, Williams’ drama shocked a lot of people, with his daring exposures of skeletons in family closets and frank allusions to sex. But 50 years down the line, his plays still work at this level, possibly because we’re not really as jaded as we suppose ourselves to be. When well-drawn characters still have to grapple with gutty issues, we hang on every word like so many fans of soap opera. Williams’ knack for catching events at the boil-over point is one of his great strengths, and his poetic Southern inflections and ability to find humor within the emotional maelstrom at hand make for consistently compelling theater. Cat is a perfect example of all of this: rife with melodrama and fully engaging the audience in what happens next.
Despite this work’s obvious sexual underpinningssurely, it was one of the first popular plays in which the word “gynecologist” was uttered aloudmoney and the passing of the family torch are the main themes here. Big Daddy Pollitt, wealthy patriarch and land baron, is dying, but his doctors and family haven’t told him yet. It’s his 65th birthday, and he thinks he’s got 20 years left, as he crows about his largesse and real estate and prolific appetites. (“Scruples are bull!” he bellows on the subject of extramarital affairs.) Older son Gooper, a lawyer, knows differently: Big Daddy has terminal cancer. Gooper’s wife, Mae, knows it too. They have four children and are positioning themselves to be the prime beneficiaries of the Pollitt legacy. Their schemes have one huge roadblock: Big Daddy’s obvious affection for younger son Brick and his wife, Maggie (the Cat), who are childless and grappling with serious relational problems that include a backstory hinting at homosexuality.
In classic Southern passive-aggressive style, the clan waxes courteous then backbites, with the veneer of gentility ultimately unable to obscure the more unpleasant human traits of jealousy, greed and manipulation. It’s all great stuff, and the BRT cast is good enough to pull it off. Marc Mazzone and Kay Ayers-Sowell are an excellent Gooper and Mae, one trying desperately to assume the mantle of family heir-apparent, the other sniping primly at Brick and Maggie’s passionless bedtime routine. Mary Bea Johnson is Big Mama, a role she has played before, which may explain her absolute, and welcome, confidence as the doughty, almost drolly clueless Pollitt matriarch.
Dan McGeachy takes on the tough task of Big Daddy, a character that Burl Ives inhabited so voraciously in the 1958 film version that only the intrepid dare try to equal his performance. Instead, McGeachy finds his own way through the part. He’s less bombastic, and this understated approach proves efficient if possibly devoid of more typical fireworks. Still, he has some ripe moments, and when he exits stage left at the conclusion of Act 2, howling “Liars...liars!,” it is clear who the biggest dude in the Pollitt household is.
J. Dietz Osborne, who usually treads the boards in light comedies and musicals, is Brick. His is a sensible reading, if a tad dry. He’s at his best when he’s working his character’s cynical side: “You’re ruining my liquor,” he tells Maggie as she desperately strives to rekindle the flames of romance. But Brick is an angst-ridden guy, to be sure, and he holds the key to whatever kind of love might be inspired in his father’s hard heart. We need to feel his vulnerability more in this portrayal.
Whatever fluctuations exist in director Green’s efficient but sometimes laissez-faire staging, there are none where Maggie is concerned, and Allen’s performance drives this show from the get-go. Like everyone else in the family, Maggie has her selfish motivations, but she emerges as likably realistic, elegantly human (despite what we learn of her lower-class background) and, on top of all that, the strongest and smartest person for miles around. Clearly, she is the kind of woman Big Daddy wanted to marryand didn’twhich only solidifies the inevitable linkage between dad and son. Hats off to Allen and her gracious rendering of the play’s pivotal role.
Tevy Bradley and Mark Allen provide support as reverend and doctor, respectively; both look (and act) a little self-conscious in Melodie Madden’s period costumes, which generally skew their focus toward enhancing the women’s presence while leaving the men looking too cornpone. But all else in this Catall three acts of itis worthwhile.
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