9/25/2019        CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF                                      Georgia Ensemble Theatre

THE SMELL OF MENDACITY

 

As the honeysuckle heat of summer begins to step aside for the torrid inferno that is an Atlanta autumn, what creaky metaphor should I evoke to describe Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams' love letter to mendacity? Dance metaphors are often apt for a Williams experience, but they may be ill-suited for a play in which only one person seems to be dancing at any particular moment. I could probably make a case that this is a simple two-step, but only if one of the partners were sitting on the sidelines, ignoring the dancer.

For the moment, I think I'll leave my literary pretensions-of-metaphor in the liquor cabinet (where they probably belong), and tea-total my way through a simple description.

It seems that for this staging, Williams' three-act ode to family dysfunction has been artfully melded into two acts that seem continuous.  It is a clever adaptation that harms not a single word of the piece, while still creating a production palatable to contemporary audiences who cringe in horror at the mere mention of a second intermission.  That it makes the action seem continuous is part of its cleverness, part of its appeal.

In the beginning, we meet Maggie the Cat, aka Margaret Pollitt, purring spouse to one Brick Pollitt, apple-of-the-eye of Big Daddy Pollitt.  Big Daddy is a Mississippi Delta plantation owner, "Twenty-eight thousand acres of the

richest land this side of the Valley Nile." Brick is a professional drinker. Maggie is a talker. In what is essentially a monologue, Kate Donadio MacQueen is the epitome of the Southern Gentlewoman, scheming, passionate, envious, suspicious, telling us anything and everything except what we (and she) really want her to say. Joe Sykes (as Brick) drinks and grunts.

Eventually, Maggie is replaced by John Maxwell's surprisingly un-hulking (and surprisingly effective) Big Daddy, a life-force who takes full control of any room he's in, a cancerous lion roaring his rage at the dying of the light. In what is essentially a monologue, he tells us anything and everything except what we (and he) really want him to say. Joe Sykes (as Brick) drinks and grunts.

Eventually, in that risky third part when audiences normally get restless and begin checking their watches, all the lying and mendacity is laid bare, all the seething resentments and hostilities burst from their graves in a glorious cacophany of thunderous anger, which the heavens themselves reflect darkly, and the play generates an excitement and watchability that is absolutely spell-binding.

I have to take a moment here for a digression. Mr. Williams' scripts have a tendency to burst from the page, as if the production were fully-formed in the readers' minds, a reason there is usually little directorial intervention, why most productions tend to be recreations of the author's mind. I want to quote you a stage direction that, in essence, introduces what I'm about to discuss:

The bird that I hope to catch in the [final third] of this play is not the solution of one man's psychological problem. I'm trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent -- fiercely charged! -- interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis. Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one's own character to himself.

I quote this now, because it goes straight to the heart of much recent post-Stonewall analysis of the play -- that is, the simple (and pat) reduction of the conflict to one of Brick's latent homosexuality. Indeed, a case is often made that, if Brick were allowed by the ethos of his society to fully engage in his undeclared (even unacknowledged) desires for his friend Skipper, there would be no play.

I submit that an equally valid case could be made for Big Daddy being just as homosexual -- his very real disgust with Big Mama, his preference for Brick over older son Gooper (what kind of name is that?), his "gentleman doth protest too much" talk of lechery and "poontang," his history of mentoring a pair of "confirmed bachelor" protégés , even his seemingly out-of-character tolerance for anything that "may have happened" between Brick and Skipper -- all these elements can lead to a similar (and valid) interpretation.

What sets Williams' work apart from more recent politics-on-my-sleeve rage-at-the-ethos offerings, is that, even if these explanations are true (as indeed they very well may be), this play is so much more. Since true feelings, true from-the-core characteristics are buried by so much mendacity, we are left only to speculate as to the truth or falsehood of these analyses. And, since the truth obviously matters so little to these characters (while paradoxically being ALL that matters), we are left with a moving and compelling interaction of at-odds goals and desires thrown into an emotional cauldron heated by an outsized southern sun. And we're left, in more ways than one, acknowledging the wry reality of the oft-repeated observation, "wouldn't it be funny if that were true."

Like Mr. Maxwell, Karen Howell is not of the "plus-size" stature you might expect from a Big Mama, but her out-sized personality sold me on the character (and made Big Daddy's comments about her size even more cruel). Ms. MacQueen was heart-breakingly wonderful as Maggie, her ambition evident,  her passions real. Mr. Maxwell's Big Daddy was spot-on perfect, keeping his motivations and fears below the surface (but apparent), ruling the roast like the crueler-than-life icon he needed to be. Topher Payne and Kelly Criss made Brother Man and Sister Woman more than the paper-thin foils they're often reduced to, giving them a humanity that makes their actions (and disappointments) valid and even a bit sad;  to be sure, their not-so-patient interactions with their horde of rambunctious no-necked children were the comic highlight of the production.   

Joe Sykes gives a beautifully nuanced performance in what is probably the most difficult role -- Brick must spend most of the play drinking himself into a calmness, listening while the "talkers" force him into a captive audience role. Mr. Sykes ALWAYS has something going on beneath his quiet, ALWAYS uses the words spewed over him to propel him deeper into the bottle. I believed his protestations of innocence regarding his relationship with Skipper, I believed his guilt over his part in Skipper's death, I even believe that at one time he was actually attracted to (and maybe even in love with) Maggie. And, when we finally get to his own late-in-the-storm monologue, all these conflicting depths and currents burst forth in a totally convincing ode to love and loss and self-delusion. This is, indeed, a remarkable performance.

As she did in he 2009 Georgia Shakespeare production of this play, Kat Conley has designed, engineered and constructed a set that beautifully evokes the ghost-like quality that Mr. Williams describes in his script -- sharp angles press on the characers with the insistence of a Mississippi sun, the outside gallery suggesting the wealth and opulence of the south, the entertainment center / liquor cabinet providing the magnet that keeps calling to Brick. The lights and sound by Elisabeth Cooper and Preston Goodson evoke the heat and sweat of the summer night, giving us the glow of fireworks, lightning, and moon in beautifully realized paintings of color and sound. And director James Donadio orchestrates his cast in a perfectly paced symphony of words and silences and outbursts and resentments, picking up pace at exactly the right moments, slowing to a quiet calm just when respite is needed.

I've often written about plays that feature families on the edge of dysfunction, families that possess a core of affection that is the lifeline through their spats and miscommunications. Indeed, it is often said that this play, first produced in 1955, set the stage (so to speak) for a new genre of ties-that-bind-and-gag family-strife works.  Here, though, we see a family without any lifeline. I suspect that love is alien to the Pollitts, that spouses are for breeding only, that children are no-neck monsters who exist only to carry on the family traditions. Even the love Big Daddy expresses for Brick seems forced, convenient, unconvincing.

I suppose the quandary I faced at the start of these ruminations is thus resolved -- you can't grow metaphorical cotton in a field so barren.

Georgia Ensemble Theatre's production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a pleasant wallow in the languor of an American classic, in the deliberate portrayal of a a family that cannot survive without its ambitions and petty obsessions, without its mixed loyalties and devotion to duty, without its raising of mendacity to an art and a way of life that, if we're not careful, may one day define us as a people.

And wouldn't it be funny if that were true?


     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #GETCatOnAHotTinRoof )

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