Sunday, February 05, 2006

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Lakeland Theatre)

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF good at Lakeland

The Cleveland area seems to be in the midst of a Tennessee Williams theatre fest. Following on the heels of the Cleveland Play House’s production of ‘A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE,’ Lakeland Theatre is staging another of Williams major plays, ‘CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF.’

‘CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF’ is the story of a Southern family in crisis. The focus is on the turbulent relationship between Maggie "The Cat" and Brick, her heavy drinking husband, and their interaction with Brick's family over the course of a weekend at the family estate in Mississippi. They are ostensibly gathered to celebrate the birthday of the patriarch "Big Daddy." To add to the intrigue, although Big Daddy has terminal cancer, his doctor and family have conspired to keep this information from him.

The central theme of the play is “mendacity,” the web of lies the family spins in a desperate attempt to keep some semblance of well-being. As Big Daddy says, “What's that smell in this room? Didn't you notice the powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room?” Additional themes center on other Williams’ key latches--decaying Southern society and the Southern woman who finds herself unable to comprehend the realities of the culture around her and that area’s view of sexuality.

The play was rewritten several times by Williams. Each time there was a different approach taken to the homosexual issue which seems central to Brick’s drinking and his relationship with Maggie. The original version of the play, and the film which was based on the Williams’ script, alludes to the presence of homosexuality. In the version of the play that Lakeland Director Martin Friedman chose to produce, the homosexuality issue is much more clearly developed, as is the sexuality. Interestingly, in an interview, Tennessee Williams indicated he was unclear about the nature of Brick and his best friend Skipper’s relationship.

The title of the play is clearly developed in the dialogue. Maggie states, “I'll win, alright. (She is referring to the contest for who gets Big Daddy’s estate.) Brick responds, “Win what? What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?” To which Maggie responds, “Just staying on it, I guess. As long as she can.”

The most compelling scene of the play centers on Big Daddy’s attempt to destroy the mendacity web. Brick refuses to drop the barrier he's constructed around himself and his dead friend. One theatre commentator states that the scene “raises the ante on Williams's drama about as high as can be found in the annals of American dramatic literature.”

One of the issues confronting any director of the play is deciding which of the possible endings to use. In the film version, in a desperate attempt to help Brick, Maggie announces to Big Daddy that she's pregnant, something Big Daddy desperately heir from his favorite son. It's a lie, of course, but Brick is touched by her loyalty to him. Maggie's outpouring of love prompts him to make good on her blatant lie, and the film closes with their passionate kiss. That is not the version Friedman chose. His is the one that Williams originally wrote, in which Brick rejects Maggie’s advances indicating that he can’t have sex with someone he hates.

The film version (1958), starred Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives and Judith Anderson. Williams, who did not participate in the award-winning cinema, so disliked the adaptation that he is reported to have gone to the world premiere and told people in line for tickets that, "This movie will set the industry back 50 years. Go home!"

The Lakeland production does not always reach the emotional heights that it should, but this is mainly a non-professional cast and, considering that, credit should be given to attempting a very challenging play and developing a more than adequate production.

Mitchell Fields, the only equity member of the cast, is generally excellent as Big Daddy, another of Williams's don't-try-to-con-me realists (think Stanley in ‘STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE’). He smolders on his entrance and screams from there on. A little more texturing of moods might have helped better understanding the character. He develops well the highlight scene with Brick when he confronts his son’s demons.

Brick is a very difficult role to portray. The man says little, but is the fulcrum of the play. Silence is his only solace from the confusion and rage he feels. Mark Smith has the physical attractiveness and muscular body to visually fit the role, but is quite young and lacking in his ability to dig beyond the surface of the character. He substitutes body twitches for internal pain, and can’t match the emotional levels of Liz Conway’s Maggie or Fields’ Big Daddy. Even the capstone last line of the play lacks clarity. In fact, a patron sitting behind me whispered, “What did he say?” I thought, “What did he mean?”

Liz Conway does well at Maggie. She, like the proverbial cat, lands on her feet because of cunning. And, as a cat, she is unpredictable, not willing to be trained. Her acting motivations are clear and she prowls with conviction.

Mary Jane Nottage, in spite of a coming and going accent, a problem with most of the cast, swings from airhead to desperation to airhead with ease. This is one of her best ever performances.

Erin Bunting gives a shrewish interpretation to Mae, Gooper’s wife, that makes her appear mean rather than devious manner of a true “southern lady.” Steven Hoffman’s Gooper, Brick’s older brother, appears too strong at times rather than being a foil for Mae.

Michael Regnier as the Doctor and Marvin Mallory as the Reverend are generally unconvincing in their roles.

Keith Nagy’s fragmentary set and lighting effects help create the right illusions, as do Craig Tucker’s costumes.

Capsule judgment: At Lakeland, ‘CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF’ gets a good community theatre production, which features some fine performances. Be aware that the 3-act play is long at almost three hours.