Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
At the Drury Lane Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Oakbrook Terrace—The Drury Lane Theatre has been a temple of outstanding musical theater productions for many years, but for the 2018 summer season the theater’s artistic brain trust has elected to break tradition with a revival of Tennessee Williams’s family drama “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Hopefully, the drama will not be a one-and-done straight play presentation. This is a production to treasure.
“Cat on a Hot in Roof” takes us deep into Tennessee Williams country, geographically and psychologically. The setting is he Mississippi plantation of Big Daddy Pollitt, the strong willed millionaire owner of 28,000 acres of prime farmland plus a few million dollars in stocks and bonds. Big Daddy imperially presides over a dysfunctional family consisting of his wife Big Mamma, and his older son Brick and younger son Gooper, along with Brick’s wife Maggie and Gooper’s perennial pregnant wife Mae.
Tensions are running high in the Pollitt household. Big Daddy is dying of cancer but doesn’t know it yet. Brick is a self-destructive alcoholic who seeks oblivion in the liquor bottle to obliterate memories of his complicity in the suicide of his best friend Skipper years ago. Maggie ferociously tries to save her marriage from Brick’s alcoholic hostility and sexual indifference. Meanwhile, Gooper and Mae circle around Big Daddy, trying to position themselves for a big chunk of the old man’s inheritance.
The first act belongs primarily to Maggie, who perform a virtual monologue directed at her alienated husband as he quietly tosses down one drink after another, seeking the “click” that releases him from the spiritual pain going back to Skipper’s death. She loves Brick and she loves her status as the member of a wealthy family after suffering as a poor relation all her life. She won’t give up husband and family money without a battle. Maggie calls herself Maggie the Cat for a reason.
The second act is mostly a dialogue between Brick and his volcanic father. During a long and increasingly volatile exchange, Brick finally reveals the root of his search for alcoholic oblivion. Skipper had a homosexual attachment to Brick that came to a head when Skipper tried to make love to Maggie to prove his manhood and failed, later confessing his love for Brick in a drunken phone call. Brick hung up on him, leading to Skipper’s descent into the drugs and booze that destroyed him. Brick has been on a guilt trip of self-loathing and disgust ever since.
Two separate third acts exist for the play. One was preferred by Williams and the other one was inspired by the insistence of director Elia Kazan for a more upbeat ending that became the one used in the 1955 Broadway production, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Drury Lane wisely chose the Williams original. It provides no false happy ending but there is an intensely erotic final moment that suggests better days may be ahead for Maggie and Brick.
The play is oddly shaped, with Big Daddy not making his first appearance until the second act. Maggie is absent in the second act. Big Daddy then is off stage until the final scenes. Thus the play’s two strongest characters are missing for large portions of the drama, but so sure is Williams’s writing and the guidance by guest director Marcia Mulgrom Dodge that the play seems to flow inevitably. There is very little physical action in the play but the script’s white-hot intensity sustains the fascination of the narrative in a credible arc of human feeling—greed, sexual desire, betrayal, jealousy, love, and fear of death.
The cast is a flawless blend of local performers and imports. Genevieve Angelson and Anthony Bowden are Maggie and Brick. Angelson and Bowden create a credibly matched fire and ice pair. The young woman is a fierce blend of sexual passion and self-preservation. Brick affects a detachment from life that explodes into fury and self-hatred during his long encounter with Big Daddy. Matt DeCaro is a splendid bellowing Big Daddy, and Cindy Gold makes an unusually strong impression as Big Mamma, a character usually portrayed as her husband’s brow beaten victim but at Drury Lane a figure of considerable fortitude and temperament.
There are fine complimentary performances by Michael Milligan as Gooper, a grasping and venal man embittered over a lifetime of negligent treatment from his Brick-loving parents, with Gail Rastorfer who deftly plays his bitchy wife. Fortunately, the production omits distracting onstage appearances by their bratty children. There are also good cameos by Joe Bianco as a preacher sucking up to Big Daddy for donations for his church and Craig Spidle as the doctor who brings Big Daddy the bad news about his fatal cancer condition. And Donica Lynn contributes telling musical flourishes as the blues-singing Pollitt maid Sookey.
The production is superbly designed, starting with the detailed and atmospheric multi-level set by Kevin Depinet and properties designer Cassy Schillo that visually symbolize the decaying Pollitt family. Sully Ratke designed the costumes, Driscoll Otto the lighting, and Ray Nardelli the sound.
Presiding over this masterwork of staging is director Dodge, who orchestras the production for maximum impact emotionally, psychologically, and occasionally comically. I have never seen the characters and conflicts in this drama so sharply and insightfully etched.
Given the demographics of he Drury Lane audiences the theater will continue to deliver musicals, and with typical creativity and professionalism. But after witnessing the brilliance of “Cat on a Hot in Roof” revival, it’s only natural to hope the theater reserves maybe one straight play slot per subscription season, preferably with Marcia Milgrom Dodge as director. High quality adult theater (in the best sense of this much abused term) doesn’t get any better than this.
The show gets a rating of
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”” runs through August 26 at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane. Performances are Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., Thursday at 1:30 and 8 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 and 8:30 p.m., at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $43 to $58. Visit DruryLaneTheatre.com or call 630 530 0111.
Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com July 2018
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