Daddy’s probably dying, the favored son doesn’t seem to give a cotton boll about continuing the family line and his brother’s bratty kids won’t quiet down.
Oh, yeah, it’s hot and sticky, too.
So it is little wonder that all the principals in Stolen Shakespeare Guild’s production of Tennessee Williams’ classic drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are so out of sorts.
This 1955 play, which won a Pulitzer Prize, deals with the simmering tensions and life-crushing disappointments of what has to be called an extremely dysfunctional Southern family .
At the center of all this animosity and mendacity (and, oh do we have some major mendacity going on here) is former football star and current lush, Brick (Christian Schmoker), and his wife, Margaret (Katreeva Phillips), who is better known to her friends and enemies alike as Maggie the Cat — characters played so indelibly by Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1958 big-screen version of the play.
They are the burrs under the saddles of the family’s plantation-owning patriarch, Big Daddy (Kit Hussey) and his perpetually frazzled wife, Big Mama (Phyllis Clayton-Huaute). Smelling blood in the water are Brick’s brother, Memphis lawyer Gooper (Alex Wade) and his ever-pregnant spouse, Mae (Libby Hawkins).
This production of Williams’ 1974 revision of the text, which is part of the company’s on-going series of Pulitzer-winning plays, lets the playwright do the talking. Alex Krus’ unadorned direction allows the show’s intense emotions to spill forth with neither reserve nor embellishment. The show’s length (two hours and 45 minutes) is all the fault of Williams, not Krus, who makes sure the show never feels slow or long.
The action is played out on a straightforward, but handsome, set by George Redford.
There are a number of outstanding performances in this production. Big Daddy is usually played with an abundance of blubber and bluster befitting his name. So it is refreshing to see an actor of a normal build playing the role so effectively. Hussey shows that power and dominance do not require a literal larger-than-life physicality.
Easily the best part of this production is Act 2, where Hussey and Schmoker square off in what amounts to a 12-round heavyweight fight that no one can win. Both actors do some fabulous work in that protracted battle.
With just a couple of exceptions, the lesser roles are also well-handled. We don’t get to hear much from Wade until near the play’s end. But when his number is called, he is ready. You can’t help but hate Hawkins — because that is exactly the feeling her character is supposed to inspire.
Phillips’ interpretation of the incredibly complex role of Maggie is a bit more problematic. She embraces the role wholeheartedly and, although she lays her Southern accent on thickly, it works in the context. But, she does not always seem to find the right tone or cadence for her speeches.
Maggie can shift from honey-drenched sweetness to vitriol-laced sarcasm in the blink of a perfectly made up eyelash. But we don’t see that often enough in this production. Phillips’ Cat is certainly recognizable, but it just feels like she and Krus could have shaped a more nuanced performance.
There are also some other details that can be nitpicked. The costumes by Kelly King do not do as much as they could to set the time and place. While Phillips’ accent is what we expect, most of the other players do not make enough of an effort in that direction.
So, on a grand scale, this production respects the material and gives it the effort it deserves. In addition to its minor failings, it is also fundamentally flawed by a few of its casting choices. Schmoker, for example, is an outstanding actor, but Brick is not an ideal role for him.
What remains is a production with a lot going for it but also one that you wish was just a bit stronger in certain aspects, primarily because the bar is set so high for this classic of American theater.
But almost regardless of the production, it is hard not to have a memorable night in the theater when Tennessee Williams is supplying the words.