BWW Review: CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF at Susquehanna Stage Company
Tennessee Williams is perhaps one of the most well-known playwrights of the modern era. His works, such as THE GLASS MENAGERIE (one of the reviewer's favorite plays) and A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE have long stood the test of time with Williams' use of relevant subject matter and interesting characters. Susquehanna Stage Company brings Williams' words to life onstage now as a part of their Pulitzer-Prize Winning Season with CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. Regarded by Tennessee Williams as the forerunner of his own works, the show deals with many subjects considered taboo during its time and are still incredibly prevalent in today's society.
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF first opened on Broadway on March 24th, 1955 at the Morosco Theater. The production was nominated for 4 Tony Awards in 1956, including Best Scenic Design, Best Director (Elia Kazan), Best Actress (Barbara Bel Geddes), and Best Play. While not claiming victory at the Tonys, the original Broadway production took home both the New York Drama Critic's Circle Award for Best American Play as well as the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1955. The show has seen 5 Broadway revivals in 1974, 1990, 2003, 2008, and 2013, as well as countless regional productions throughout the years, thus proving the enduring nature of the play. CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF has found an international niche as well, and has been performed on the West End. A Hollywood adaptation of the play was released in 1958, starring Elizabeth Warren and Paul Newman. The show centers around a wealthy family on a Mississippian plantation coming face to face with the secrets and drama they've tried to suppress. At the birthday party of Big Daddy Pollitt, the family patriarch, tensions mount between Brick Pollitt and his father as well as with his wife, Maggie.
Maggie is portrayed at Susquehanna Stage Company by Megan L. Riggs, who delivers an excellent performance. Maggie has fled from a potential life of poverty to the financial security of the Pollitt family, and has appeared to have adjusted to her position quite well over the years. Riggs' Maggie is filled to the brim with attitude and opinions, and is a far cry from shy. She seems to talk in order to survive, and is completely unafraid to voice whatever is on her mind, whether it be to her husband or her in-laws. While Maggie is portrayed effortlessly as a gossip, she is also incredibly intelligent and observant. Riggs' Maggie knows how to manipulate those around her, and changes her demeanor to suit each situation. Though usually carrying a confident air, Maggie knows exactly when to show deference to serve her own long-term needs. However, when she is free to be herself, Riggs brings to the table a Maggie who is fluent in sarcasm and retort. She is unabashedly realistic, and never hesitates to tell anyone the truth-including her husband.
Maggie knows exactly how to strike the most tender of nerves in Brick, and will do so in honest efforts to help him overcome the problems of his past and the resulting alcoholism. Moments in which she speaks to Brick with love and compassion are genuine, but it is also made clear that she has been pushed to her limits with his cold, aloof nature. Riggs creates a Maggie who is filled with emotion but is also capable of remaining calm and collected when the need arises. Riggs does an astounding job of inhabiting her character and delivering a performance that seems as natural to her as breathing. She is consistently switching between moods and attitudes with ease, and her use of facial expressions and physicality is some of the best in the show. Additionally, her line delivery always hits its mark. But even when Maggie is not the center of attention, Riggs is always reacting the action around her. She never lets Maggie out of her sight, the mark of a truly experienced actor.
Brick Pollitt, Maggie's husband, is perhaps everything his wife is not: lethargic unmotivated, disinterested in life and all it has to offer. He drinks to forget his past, and to forget himself in the process. Played by Jonathan Shirey, Brick seems to live life by going through the motions with a drink in his hand, unconcerned with any and all family matters and especially unconcerned with Maggie's doings. He is detached, as Maggie often notes, and always seems to carry a defeated look on his face. Shirey makes it clear that Brick has been through hell, and has only barely made it back. Despite his anger and bitterness, however, Bricks seems to find himself on a moral high ground, often displaying an exhausted modesty that contradicts Maggie's boundless energy. He is generally an honest man, but is very obviously keeping many of his true emotions pent up inside. This makes moments where he lets himself go all the more believable and all the more satisfying as he allows himself to feel. Shirey plays Brick with the utmost sincerity, even though this sincerity manifests itself in his character as a true disgust with both his family and with himself. Brick is clearly hiding from himself, and denying crucial parts of his own being that he can't bear to say aloud. Shirey handles the burden of his character's secret well, and portrays great emotion after keeping Brick calm and suppressed for much of the show.
Brick's relationships with his family are major aspects of the show, and Shirey works well with the other members of the cast to create tension and disparity between the Pollitts. Brick and Maggie's marriage is on the rocks, and this is made perfectly clear by the distance their characters exhibit. While Maggie still obviously cares for Brick's well-being, he often does not seem to return the sentiment, instead showing her indifference and sometimes anger when she provokes him. In fact, Brick seems to treat most of his family in a similar fashion, save for Big Daddy (Gene Ellis). Brick's relationship with his father is perhaps the most tumultuous of the show, and garners much of the plot's attention. This father and son dynamic is strained, due to Big Daddy's large, cynical, sometimes perverted personality clashing with Brick's subdued and moral nature. Ellis and Shirey work together to illustrate a relationship that is full of explicitly blunt remarks mixed with a lack of clear, honest communication. They simply do not understand how to speak to each other and clearly relate how they feel, and this has created a rocky relationship that does not appear to be on the mend any time soon. That being said, Brick and Big Daddy due exhibit kinder moments between them, proving that they do care for each other despite not always knowing how to show it. However, Big Daddy does not seem to treat the rest of the Pollitt family in the same way.
Gene Ellis brings the large-and-in-charge Big Daddy Pollitt to life at Susquehanna Stage Company, and proves himself as the right man for the job right from the start. He is crude and full of candor, all seriousness and dry humor without an ounce of sensitivity in him. He will say anything to anyone, and could care less about the consequences. Of course, with his power and influence, Big Daddy can virtually get away with anything. He takes orders from no one and will push the envelope as far as he wants. Ellis is a commanding presence onstage, and this suits his character perfectly. Big Daddy holds on tightly to power, and does not respond well to any attempts on his influence, whether by Big Mama or by his eldest son Gooper and his wife, Mae. He has earned everything he has, and massively disapproves of the entitled nature of his wife, son, and daughter-in law. Ellis' Big Daddy is full of anger and bitterness, much like Brick, and this has resulted in part from a recent health scare from which he is reported to have recovered from. However, he sees the realism and practicality in life, and is understandably a major cynic. Ellis portrays Big Daddy as a man who is dissatisfied with his life, and resents the materialism and selfishness that his family displays as a result of their wealth. Despite his cruel, hard manner, Ellis' Big Daddy has principles that he is determined to uphold, as well as a strange, unkind wisdom that has come with experience. This unconventional sense of dignity contributes to the tensions between both of his sons, particularly with Brick. He is disappointed in what Brick has become, and isn't afraid to let him know about it.
Ellis is full of intensity at almost every moment, partly due to his character's renewed vigor for life at being on the brink of death. He delivers his long speeches with apparent ease, knowing which marks to hit to deliver the largest impact. He carries himself with a kind of regality and power, as a man of his statue would. In his less intense moments, he is cocky and confident, making sexually inappropriate remarks with ease and generally remaining unconcerned with treading on any toes. At the peak of his anger, however, Big Daddy becomes almost threatening, making it hard to see any good concealed deep within him. However, even despite his callous nature and his endless insults, his wife still cares a great deal for her Big Daddy.
Big Mama is played by Barbara Strong Ellis, and her character's personality is just as big as her name. She commands the stage as soon as she enters, and practically glows with happiness at the start of the show. She is put together, and clearly aims to make a good impression wherever she goes. Ellis' Big Mama is particularly caring, and this dedication to her family makes her quite a bit fussy over the smallest details of any affair. While Big Mama is generally a positive, upbeat presence in the show, Ellis is more than capable of showing the sides of Big Mama that are less pleasant. Ellis delivers a performance that shows her incredibly versatile range of emotion; she plays a broken, hurt, betrayed, and yet still concerned wife just as easily as she plays the woman who devotes her life to her family and their well-being. Big Mama is an expert in denial, able to plaster a fake smile over any trouble in order to believe that it will go away. She, like much of the cast, is genuine and real, and her emotions are incredibly portrayed by Ellis. Big Mama is pitied and loved by the audience, no matter how frivolous and vain her character may sometimes act.
The last of the Pollitts, Gooper and Mae, played by Timothy Riggs and Andi Hill, respectively. Gooper is quiet for the majority of the show, but truly does shine in moments to himself. Riggs portrays a Gooper who is insufferably realistic, more than likely because he feels he is forced to be as the eldest child to an ailing father and brother to an alcoholic. That being said, Riggs makes it clear in his mannerisms and inflection that he considers himself and his wife to be much more capable than the rest of the family and therefore worthy of the burden of responsibility. Riggs has great moments towards the end of the show after being in the background for so long; he takes charge of the family's affairs and tries to be practical, through obviously making a grab for power. However, he does have moments in which he seems to truly care for and support his family, especially Big Mama. Riggs' Gooper often seems to walk the line between pushing the buttons of his family members but then serving as a mediator when things begin to get out of hand. His wife Mae, on the other hand, is often the one in need of mediation. She is a meddler in every sense of the word, often bursting with desire to have the last word, make a scathing comment, or find herself in the middle of any situation. Andi Hill's Mae, while doting upon her "no-neck" children, is often acting as a gossip, and is in constant competition for that title with Maggie. The two women clearly have never gotten along, partly due to Mae's superior attitude towards anyone without children. She is quick to indigence and is very obviously self-indulgent. Hill plays Mae as a woman who thinks very highly of herself, and makes sure everyone knows it. However, in a family like the Pollitts, this behavior is almost expected.
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF features a family that has weathered many trials and has not always come out the better for it. The show speaks of many subjects that affect us all, such as death and greed, while also touching on topics that were controversial in Williams' time that remain so today. Susquehanna Stage Company's rendition of Tennessee Williams' masterpiece is potent and dramatic, and thrives on the flow of intensity. While there are some slower moments, the show often keeps up a very good pace that holds the attention of the audience. In a play as dialogue-heavy as CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, it would be easy to lose the audience's focus with too many words and not enough action, but this cast develops characters and relationships throughout the show that drive the plot forward and keep the audience ensnared with the fate of Big Daddy, Brick, and Pollitts. The show is moving and impactful, as many of Tennessee Williams' work proves to be, and leaves the audience wanting more when they have already been given so much.
Presented by Susquehanna Stage Company. Next is HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING. Visit www.susquehannastageco.com.