The Tennessee Williams classic in a fine production at Aurora’s Vintage Theatre
Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is playing at Aurora’s Vintage Theatre 67 years after the original 1955 production jumped onto the scene. Director Bernie Cardell presents the 1974 version that Williams himself felt represented the most honest version of his original concept. “It’s a more intimate version that doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities, soft desperation, and quiet horrors of his characters,” Cardell writes in the program notes. Williams’ timeless classic offers an eye-opening look into a family battling greed, lies, mortality, and the need for love – all enduring themes regardless of the year.
For those unfamiliar, the three-act play is set in the Mississippi plantation home of a rich patriarch, Big Daddy, on the family celebration of his 65th birthday. All have been made aware of the patriarch’s terminal cancer diagnosis except the matriarch, Big Mama and Big Daddy himself. The play centers around the stormy relationship between Big Daddy’s son, Brick, a disenchanted, alcoholic, closeted (most likely) ex-athlete and his sexually neglected wife, Maggie (the Cat) desperate for a child to legitimize her place in the family dynamic. Added to the mix is the contrast of the calculating older son, Gooper and daughter-in-law Mae’s attempts to undermine Maggie and Brick while positioning themselves and their ever-increasing group of offspring to inherit the patriarch’s estate.
The Vintage production opens to Matthew S. Crane’s set design of Chippendale floral upholstered wood furniture, a brass bed and sparse decor. Kelly Unhlenhopp is ideally cast as Maggie, and she enters the bedroom with a fast-paced verbal barrage, lambasting the “no-neck monsters” (Mae’s children) while also berating her husband Brick, who has just stepped out of the shower. Lighting designer Steven Tangedal’s choice of bright overhead lights adds a certain “nowhere to hide” exposure to the dramatic setup.
Maggie keeps talking at Brick as he hobbles around on one crutch drinking and trying to find what he describes as “the click” hidden in endless bottles of mind-numbing Echo Spring whiskey. James O’Hagan-Murphy commits nicely to the role of Brick, balancing his growing resentment with a precise minimalist response. It is through Maggie’s ongoing frenetic delivery that we are made aware of important plot information — including Gooper’s scheme for Big Daddy’s estate, Brick’s drunk hurdling accident on the high school athletic field and her desperate need for Brick’s attention — and a baby.
The pace slows as Maggie catches a look from Brick that puts her cat instincts on high alert. Could this be the moment she woos her husband to bed and gains the upper hand with a baby? Maybe not. As things implode, Brick lunges and stumbles, and we see Maggie turn on him once again. As she continues her verbal tirade, we learn the dark truths behind Brick’s relationship with his friend Skipper and Maggie’s unfaithful act. Brick never recovered from the suicide of his close friend, who not only confessed his love to him but carried shame from his encounter with Maggie. It is this uncomfortable secret and Brick’s wrestling with his own sexuality and the mendacity of life that acts as an underlying current throughout the play.
The action soon shifts with the arrival of Mae (Linda Williams), who uses spot-on insults to derail Maggie, delivered with Southern charm and jab. Jan Cleveland’s Big Mama also takes to the stage with a wonderfully realistic performance as the committed yet misinformed believer in Big Daddy and his cancer-free, spastic colon diagnosis. The first act closes with Brick’s chilling reminder to Maggie: “How are you going to have a child with a man who can’t stand you?”
The next two acts delve into specifics, using Tennessee Williams’ impeccable commitment to detail and language as an anchor. All characters are cleverly revealed at Big Daddy’s birthday celebration, including Andy Anderson as the uncomfortable, jealous, unfavored elder son Gooper; Elliott Murphy’s comedic Reverend Tooker; and David Cervera’s convincingly underwhelmed Doc Baugh. It’s in this setting that we are finally introduced to Rick Long’s captivating performance as Big Daddy, the bombastic, controlling, misogynistic and profane patriarch. With scary honesty and ballooned importance, Big Daddy’s effect on the entire family is soon made unsettling clear.
Many truths are revealed, and by the final act, Maggie finds an opening to fulfill her lifelong ambition of gaining status and acceptance through a false declaration of pregnancy. Left alone with Brick in the final scene, she seduces her unenthused husband, once again, to hopefully impregnate some truth into her false claim. As she reaffirms her love for Brick, she comes to accept that it might be better to believe a marital lie can work, as opposed to scratching and clawing for something different.
The Vintage production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is an enjoyable, if unsettling, journey that takes the audience back to the time and place of the original production. The rectangular layout of Vintage’s smaller Bond-Trimble space — with three long rows of seats stretching lengthwise — allows the entire audience to feel intimately close to the actors on stage. Adding to the experience is the lobby set-up with a great bar, cabaret stage and original art for purchase. There’s a palpable sense of community, connection, and fun at the Vintage that makes me want to return again and again.