An American classic heats up

The set is cool, minimal, monochromatic; all clean lines and perfectly balanced light. A beige fainting couch sits off in the corner, a well-stocked bar stands on the opposite side, and tall white pillars behind the bedroom furniture give it the look of tradition and affluence.

Maggie the Cat (Dana Green) undresses to her white slip and thigh-high stockings. Then she prowls through the opening monologue in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with a perfect mix of ladylike indifference and Southern-fried sensuality. A poor girl who married rich and is now spurned by her husband, Brick (Ryan Kitley), she’s all longing, desire and desperation.

Brick — still young and athletic, but slowed by his disgust and hopelessness — hobbles around the bedroom in his pajamas, avoiding Maggie and the perimeter of their large, ornate brass bed. He leans on a crutch and shifts nervously, trying to drown out her excited chatter with more whiskey.

But the echoes of memory are louder than the real voices throughout this play, and the Meadow Brook Theatre’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof stays true to Williams’ emphasis on the dark undercurrents and the corruption that are just beneath the subtleties and niceties of Southern hospitality in the 1950s. Denial, envy, betrayal and, as Brick calls it, “mendacity,” are decorated with fancy lace borders and saccharine smiles or covered with freshly pressed linen. And, as a result, they are not hidden, but highlighted.

Big Daddy’s (David Regal) 65th birthday is a landmark to be celebrated, a day of birthday cake, fried chicken and fireworks. But it is also the day he finds out he’s dying of cancer, and his family has kept this truth from him, telling him he’s just suffering from a “spastic colon.”

Daddy’s eldest son, Gooper (Andrew Huff), shows up for the party with his meddling wife, a gaggle of screaming, ill-behaved children and a briefcase full of legal papers. He and his wife attempt to talk Big Mama (Laurie V. Logan), a quintessential matriarch aglow with diamond jewelry and Southern propriety, into signing over the plantation and family estate to them. In doing so, they’ll pull control away from Brick, who is wasting away in isolation, a bad marriage, depression and alcohol.

Really, two stories unfold during Big Daddy’s birthday party. In one, Maggie and Brick’s fragile and haunted relationship gasps for life. Maggie longs for intimacy, while Brick mourns his dead friend, Skipper, the end of his football career and his failure as a sports broadcaster. He also contends with the fact that most of his family and friends think he’s a closet homosexual.

In the other, Big Daddy and Big Mama come to terms with age, honesty and the inevitability of death, as if it has just occurred to them that the latter is one opponent that cannot be cheated or locked away in a cedar trunk in the attic. Their lifelong power struggle with each other comes to a screeching halt with the sudden news that Big Daddy is dying. And the entire family feels the impact. Some benefit from being jolted from complacency and the comforts of denial and decorum, especially Brick and Maggie.

Both stories are conveyed very well through Meadow Brook’s solid, well-acted production, which effectively depicts the contrast between the darkness within the minds and hearts of the play’s characters and the warm, sunny world of material wealth they live in outwardly. It is also careful to show the many ways in which Brick and Maggie’s marriage is just a mirror image of Big Daddy and Big Mama’s.

Regal’s performance as Big Daddy is funny, seamless and charmingly believable, as he offers up quips, bellows of laughter and words of wisdom between puffs on his big cigar. At times, however, his lines are poignant. When Brick tells him the truth about his cancer, he stares off into the distance and muses, “You can’t buy back your life once it’s been spent.”

From the slow drawls and lazy, suffocating indifference to the brewing tempers and sexually charged exchanges that suggest humidity and heat, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is an American classic and still as entertaining as hell. And maybe just as happy too.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs through April 14 at Meadow Brook Theatre (Oakland University, Rochester). Call 248-370-3316 for tickets and information, or check out our online events guide.

Norene Cashen writes about performance for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]
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