BWW Review: CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF at San Jose Stage Company: A Smoldering Fight Between Lies And Truth Unfolds At A Disastrous Birthday Celebration.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
There's a powerful smell of mendacity in the air at the Pollitt plantation where a family crisis dredges up the nasty side of family concerns: greed, avarice, ambition, denial and deceit in Tennessee William's Pulitzer winning iconic theatre piece. The central characters are hiding from truths and revolting against the facades they built while catering to societal norms. Their deceptions are eating them alive and this San Jose Stage production puts their artifice onstage and encourages us to root for some form of redemption from their moral morass.
The story revolves around a birthday celebration gone bad- where a family will implode under the weight of individual and family crisis. Big Daddy and Mama are happy to hear that Daddy's now cancer free. It's a birthday filled with hope and renewal. The rest of the family knows the sad truth - Big Daddy is terminal, one of the first big lies at the root of the play. The fight over his estate is the central plotline but the imperfections of each character is illuminated through intertwining subplots.
Mendacity, a system of lies and deceits, starts right at the top with family patriarch Big Daddy Pollitt, master of a sprawling 28,000-acre plantation in Eastern Mississippi. With his timid wife Big Mamma in tow, Big Daddy lords over his empire and family, who are mere possessions, like the TV/radio/Victrola console that doubles as a bar on the sparse thrust stage set by Scenic Designer Giulio Cesare Perrone. SJ Stage Company Artistic Director Randall King plays Daddy as a mean, vicious thug capable of inflicting verbal and psychological abuse at will.
Judith Miller is heartbreakingly fragile as the tragic matriarch, Big Mama, living in the loveless shadow of her husband. Ecstatic at the news of Big Daddy's positive bill of health, she tries to rally the family to celebrate his 65th birthday. Miller flutters about Brick and Maggie's bedroom, where the play is set, dispensing sometimes crude relationship advice to the childless couple.
Handsome Brick (Rob August), is a piece of a man. Broken in grief over the death of his best friend Skipper with whom he had sexual desires, Brick is an alcoholic celibate waiting to hear the 'click' in his head that signals the deadening of his feelings. He's cool and aloof, an image of masculinity that belies the torment of his repression. August has the most physical of roles - limping around in cast and crutch that may represent his vulnerability.
His wife Maggie, played with aching desperation by Allison F. Rich, will do anything to have her man, a child and money. She'll lie about her pregnancy for a dual purpose: as a beautiful gift of life to the dying Big Daddy and as a hook to force Brick to make it a reality. Rich shows a wily feminine determination that Maggie requires to keep her place in the queue.
Corporate lawyer and eldest son Gooper (Will Springhorn Jr.) and his extremely fertile and much agitated wife Mae (Tanya Marie) want their fair share of the estate and have a plan to take control and destroy Brick at the same time. Gooper has drafted a takeover plan, believing it his birthright. Mae takes a more vicious personal tack, loudly divulging intimate details of Brick and Maggie's non-existent love life.
The action takes place in the bedroom of Brick and Maggie, with family members, guests and servants waltzing in and out in Director Lee Sankowich's skillful staging. The angst over greed, inheritance and sibling rivalries is the stuff of dramatic plotlines throughout the history of theatre and film. What was new and controversial in 1955 was the second main lie, Brick's suppressed homosexual desires. Maggie the Cat alludes to their secret relationship, 'the unspoken love that dare not speak its name'. In one of the finer dramatic moments, Big Daddy forces Brick to face his love of Skipper.
The action is never over-the-top histrionics which might be the tendency given the subject matter. Instead we have a slow rolling boil of emotions the simmers and smolders like the hot Mississippi air hanging about the stage. The cast rises to the challenge of William's troubled characters. In the past two years, stages are presenting material that echoes the current political and social climate. I'm thinking of recent productions of Born Yesterday, Finks, and Frost/Nixon. Randall King chose Cat for its universal themes of mendacity and truth and we certainly can use a dose of collective truth.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues through March 3rd, 2019 at San Jose Stage Company, 490 S. 1st Street, San Jose. Tickets are available at www.thestage.org or by calling (408) 283-7142.
Photos by Dave Lopri.