Tuesday, April 22, 2014

AUM: "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"

David Wilson's directing project at Theatre AUM -- the 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams -- has a lot going for it: challenging roles for his ensemble actors, Michael Krek's open-plan evocative set that is enhanced by La'Brandon Tyre's sensitive lighting and Val Winkelman's period costumes. With such collaborations aligned, Williams' script comes alive in some interesting ways.

It is Big Daddy's [Mike Winkelman] 65th birthday on his Mississippi Delta plantation -- "28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the Valley Nile" -- and his family have gathered ostensibly to celebrate his birthday, but also to lay claim to inheriting the property. To complicate matters, Big Daddy is dying of cancer, and everyone but he and Big Mama [Blaire Casey] know it.

Successful lawyer son Gooper [Jordan Lewandowski] and his fertile wife Mae [Tina Neese] and their brood of "no neck monster" children intend to wrest the fortune from favorite son, alcoholic ex-football hero Brick [Chris Howard] and his childless wife Margaret [Sarah Worley]...Maggie: "the Cat" of the title".

Brick has been brooding with disgust and sinking deeper into drunkenness after the death of his best friend Skipper, whose homosexual advances he had rejected; Brick insists that it is possible for two men to have a "clean and decent" friendship, one that is "too rare to be normal" in other people's eyes. But he has also not made love with Maggie since Skipper died, which brings his own sexuality into question, and gives Gooper and Mae more ammunition against them. Even Big Mama intuits early in the play that "marriage problems start in bed".

In the 1950s, homosexuality was rarely broached on stage, and though today it is far more common, Williams' script that talks around this and several other issues, makes plain how hard it still is to talk about sensitive topics, especially with close relations and those we love. -- Much is made about truth telling and lies -- "mendacity" is the key word here -- and how we damage ourselves and one another by skirting around the truth, innuendo, avoidance, and denial: all forms of mendacity.

Though Big Daddy is clearly the man in charge -- all public bluster and arrogance -- in his softer moments of fatherly concern for Brick and genuine affection for Maggie, Mr. Winkelman adds a necessary dimension to the role that all too frequently is rendered hard to hear with rapid speech and high volume. While he complains about mendacity, he too keeps things hidden.

Ms. Neese is frighteningly accurate in her depiction of Mae as an ever-present annoyance, but Gooper only shows his true colors in Act III; Mr. Lewandowski's petulance and sibling rivalry emerges with a resounding nastiness.

Big Mama is a steadfast defender of her husband, and tolerates his insults and infidelities, choosing to deny that he means what he says; but Ms. Casey is devastated on hearing the truth about Big Daddy's terminal illness by Dr. Baugh [Garrett Wilson], and rejects the solace offered by Rev. Tooker [Tony Atkins].

Mr. Howard is so solemn in his portrayal of Brick, that it is hard to imagine him as a one-time sports hero, but his commitment to this manner creates a vulnerability that both Big Daddy and Maggie can pounce upon, and which gives a glimmer of hope for his reclamation and for Maggie's potential triumph.

In Ms. Worley's capable hands, Maggie is the one realist in the house. It is clear from the start that she is a practical woman who acknowledges the truth, a woman who loves her husband and will do most anything to get him back -- including telling a big lie that for the moment no one can either prove or disprove. Mendacity indeed.

Mr. Wilson has given Montgomery audiences a lot to consider in this fine production of Tennessee Williams' masterpiece.