Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Through May 7
Antaeus Theatre Company inaugurates their lovely new Glendale performance space with this tremendously stylish production of Tennessee Williams’ family drama. The play tells the story of a desperate woman named Maggie (the “cat” of the title) her depressed alcoholic husband Brick, and the battle for the estate of Brick’s father, the intimidating Big Daddy.
Many iterations of this play run the risk of crossing over into camp. After all, here’s this lady, married to a closeted gay man, who spends most of the first act shrieking her sexual frustration to the skies. But director Cameron Watson’s taut production tamps down the lurid subtext which, in some productions, becomes so overt it makes one snicker. Instead, he opts for a dynamic, if straightforward staging that’s brittle and powerful. And, yes, the lurid stuff is still there for sure — but it’s simmering like a broth, as opposed to boiling over like fetid ghee. The result is an artful production with characters who are unexpectedly believable rather than caricatured.
The story takes place on Steven C. Kemp’s intriguingly abstract plantation house set, which boasts tall dangling window frames and planks of woods that curl upwards in a curving, perpendicular angle to suggest Southern decay. Here, a wealthy Southern family comes together to roast each other alive. Maggie (Rebecca Mozo) is furious with her handsome but tragically disinterested husband Brick (Ross Phillips), who would rather drown his mysterious sorrows in booze than provide her with the son she needs to ensure their share in the family inheritance. Maggie alone must battle Brick’s brother Gooper (Patrick Wenk-Wolff) and his loathsome wife Mae (Jocelyn Towne) to see who will win the family plantation from foul-mouthed, irascible family patriarch, Big Daddy (Harry Groener). Big Daddy has been told that the illness he’s been struggling with isn’t cancer, so his wife, Big Mama (Dawn Didawick), throws a massive celebration — though the truth turns out to be more tragic.
The ensemble is first-rate. Mozo’s awesomely twitchy Maggie the Cat all but writhes with frustrated desire and deranged energy as she tries to yoke her despairing husband to her will. Philips’s calculatedly passive turn as Brick is one of the drama’s most difficult roles— it’s necessary for the actor to convey lassitude and lack of affect while still meeting the work’s high energy needs. It’s powerful, how, as the story unfolds, Philips’ eyes literally seem to unfocus as he reaches the alcoholic “click” called for in the text.
Groener’s Big Daddy is a ferocious creature, full of twisted anger and, yes, self indulgence, who clawed his way to his fortune. The play’s most compelling moments come during the sad and fiery scenes between Groener’s Big Daddy and Phillips’ maddeningly passive Brick, as father attempts to understand his son, and the son neatly sidesteps these attempts with sheer empty soullessness. And, yet, these turns are almost upstaged by Didawick’s as Big Mama: Cloyingly sugary when interacting with Big Daddy, yet shrieking like a stuck pig when confronted by her children, Didawick’s performance is a wonder to watch. She’s like the bewildered deluded granny of everyone’s memory. As the perfectly loathsome rivals for Maggie and Brick’s inheritance, Wenk-Wolff and Towne are also delightfully trashy.
Watson’s rich staging shows its strengths in neat smaller moments. For instance, during the sequence in which Mozo’s Maggie is ranting non-stop, Phillips’ Brick’s towel falls off, revealing his naked body, and Maggie actually loses her train of thought, distracted as she is by her lust. Later, when Groener’s Big Daddy thinks that he is healthy, he rages so venomously at Big Mama that the character actually catches her breath and hobbles away in inarticulate sadness.
Note: The production is double-cast. This review is of ‘The Buttered Biscuits’ ensemble.
Antaeus Theatre, Kiki and David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 E. Broadway, Glendale; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat 2 and 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m.; through May 7. (818) 506-1983 or www.antaeus.org. Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with 2 intermissions.