2013-05-31 / On The Town
PLAY REVIEW ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’
Relationship themes in 1950s play still relevant on modern stage
Summertime audiences may be in the mood for lighter fare, but this intense, Pulitzer Prizewinning play, set in the sweltering heat of the Deep South, fits with this season.
The complex play covers just about every issue of modern families: life, death, lies, secrets, sibling rivalry, social climbing, homosexuality and failing marriages.
Act I is mostly a monologue by Maggie (Jessica Lynn Verdi), occasionally punctuated by quips from her husband, Brick (Allen C. Gardner), and various relatives. Having grown up poor, Maggie hopes that her marriage to the son of a wealthy landowner will give her the money and respectability she craves.
But Brick may lose his inheri- tance to his brother, Gooper (William Carmichael); his sister-in-law, Mae (Jolyn Johnson); and their numerous children.
Big Daddy (Jim Seerden) is dying of cancer, but he and Big Mama are in denial of his imminent demise. Gooper, meanwhile, is scheming for the family riches to pass to him rather than to the childless and alcoholic Brick.
Maggie wants Brick to fight for his inheritance, but he cares for nothing but the bottle. After the death of his close friend Skipper (the nature of their friendship is questionable), Brick stopped sleeping with Maggie and started drinking. While Brick wants to give up on their marriage, Maggie’s willing to fight for him.
A former high school athletic star who still yearns for his glory days, Brick hobbles about with one leg in a cast. His drinking has left him mentally crippled as well, and he’s unable to create a new life after the death of his dreams and his friend.
Act II is mostly between Big Daddy and Brick. A fatherand son “talk” starts out meandering and trite but eventually moves into deeper issues. Big Daddy claims that Brick drinks to escape “mendacity,” or the lies around them. When Brick counters some of these lies, the truth literally hurts.
Eventually, more lies are uncovered. The good-natured and ever-grinning Gooper reveals his ruthlessness. Silly-headed Mae demonstrates her mean streak. Maggie lies to win over Big Daddy.
Not even Dr. Phil could straighten out this family.
Verdi is sassy and sexy as the hot-blooded Maggie, who slinks across the stage like a cat. She’s powerful in the role, but at times her accent obscures her words.
The handsome Gardner plays an alcoholic well and shows hidden strength when he confronts Big Daddy. His frequent staring off stage, though, can appear almost catatonic.
Seerden is powerful and engaging as Big Daddy, the tycoon who neglected his family to build a business and is stuck in a loveless marriage.
Helene Benjamin Cohen plays Big Mama, the neglected wife and overindulgent mother who finds comfort in a world of lies. She pampers her grown boys, flirts like an ingénue, and believes not only that her husband is healthy but that he loves her.
With his incessant cheeriness that turns deadly, Carmichael makes his role noteworthy.
Johnson is comical as the ever-pregnant mom, especially when she coaches her brood to sing “Happy Birthday.” In Act II she turns that Southern charm into a knife.
Brasted is convincing as the jolly glad-hander Rev. Tooker, who courts the Pollits in hopes of obtaining a donation. But when the family falls apart and needs pastoral guidance, Tooker beats a hasty retreat. (Costume note: Southern Protestant preachers don’t wear Roman collars.)
Brian Robert Harris directs. The action flows well and the energy stays high throughout.
Harris makes some interesting directorial choices. The set consists of wood slats instead of solid walls. The characters must mime props for the audience to imagine. And Gooper’s children are never seen, only heard through recorded voiceovers.
These conventions might work well in an ethereal “memory play” such as Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.”
But “Cat” is a sensual, earthy show with grit and raw emotions. Invisible sets and props seem more of a distraction than an asset.
The acting is top-notch and the story is still fresh and relevant. As long as families fight, squabble, love and reconcile, “Cat” will continue to prowl.
The three-hour show, with its adult themes and strong language, is not suitable for children.
The theater is at 330 Skyway Drive, Camarillo. The play runs weekends through June 23. For tickets, call (805) 388-5716.