Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Marking its Territory

L-R foreground: Kerry Giorgi as Maggie, Eric Behr as Big Daddy, David Sackal as Brick (courtesy Epic Theatre, photo by Dave Cantelli Photography)

L-R foreground: Kerry Giorgi as Maggie, Eric Behr as Big Daddy, David Sackal as Brick (courtesy Epic Theatre, photo by Dave Cantelli Photography)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of the most well-known and recognizable plays of the past century. The film version starring Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Burl Ives was the third highest grossing release of 1958, and the vision of Taylor, widely acknowledged as one of the classic feminine beauties of the era, costumed as “Maggie the Cat” in her revealing-but-unrevealing slinky full slip is one of the iconic images of the 1950s. Yet that film is seriously deficient, censoring enough of the original dialogue as to leave an audience, uninitiated into the subtleties of keeping up a false façade in the 1950s, unable to understand any of the core motivations of the characters and wondering why Cat is acclaimed as a dramatic masterpiece.

Playwright Tennessee Williams writes in his introductory stage directions, “The set should be far less realistic than I have so far implied in this description of it … above all, the designer should take as many pains to give the actors room to move about freely (to show their restlessness, their passion for breaking out) as if it were a set for a ballet.” For the current production at Epic Theatre, director Kira Hawkridge has taken this suggestion to its logical extreme, playing out all of the action on a bare plywood platform about 8 by 16 feet, with props limited to a few chairs and a heck of a lot of little wooden blocks, giving her actors extraordinary range of motion. Those blocks make a lot of noise, especially when hurled violently by the characters in their “restlessness.”

Kerry Giorgi in the role of “Maggie” takes full advantage of that freedom, giving Elizabeth Taylor a run for her money in sultriness with a surprisingly plausible Southern accent and physically almost dancing a “ballet” in her slithery – and, in a word, feline – intertwining with David Sackal in the role of her husband “Brick.” The cast is uniformly excellent, but the standout performance is undoubtedly by Giorgi as Maggie. Sackal’s agile and balletic performance as Brick deserves praise in its own right, but his taciturn character inevitably functions as a foil for others. The key dynamic of the play depends upon Giorgi convincing us of Maggie’s fiery and emphatically feminine sexual nature, contrasting with Brick’s rejection of her, a cat in every sense.

The word “cat” has layers upon layers. There is its explicit reference where “Maggie the Cat” uses it as a metaphor for her own survival, “You know, if I thought you would never, never, never make love to me again — I would go downstairs to the kitchen and pick out the longest and sharpest knife I could find and stick it straight into my heart, I swear that I would!…. What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof? — I wish I knew.… Just staying on it, I guess, as long as she can.” Brick eventually cruelly dares her to leave him or carry out her threats of suicide, “Then jump off the roof, jump off it, cats can jump off roofs and land on their four feet uninjured!” The word “cat” also is slang for prostitute, as in “cathouse,” and all of the women are effectively selling themselves and their independence for financial stability and social respectability. In yet another meaning, at one point the matriarch cautions, “I won’t tolerate any more catty talk in my house.”

While Maggie is the catalyst for the plot (pun intended), she is not its subject. The events of the play surround the 65th birthday of “Big Daddy” (Eric Behr), the family patriarch who worked his way up from overseer to acquire a vast cotton plantation on “28 thousand acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile.” Big Daddy returns from several weeks at a medical clinic where he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, but the doctors lie to him and say that his only problem is a minor “spastic colon.” His wife, “Big Mama” (Michelle L. Walker), is ecstatic with the supposedly good news. The doctor (Justin Pimentel) tells the truth about the diagnosis to the sons of Big Daddy, “Gooper” (Justin Paige) and Brick, who tell their wives, “Mae” (Stephanie Traversa) and Maggie, respectively. The hypocritical reverend (Jason Quinn) seems more interested in the possibility of a generous memorial bequest than in comforting and consoling the family.

Big Daddy is perhaps the archetype of all Williams’ characters in the way “Hamlet” is for Shakespeare. Williams always regarded himself as a poet who happened to become a playwright, like Leonard Cohen regarded himself as a poet who happened to become a songwriter, and the cadence and eloquence of Big Daddy is a challenge of Shakespearean scale for an actor. Eric Behr does a wonderful job in the role, commanding the dialogue like King Lear with a Southern drawl. Artistic Director Kevin Broccoli opined in the talkback session after the performance that one of the dangers of the play is the temptation to caricature Big Daddy as “Colonel Sanders,” but Behr clearly escapes that.

Michelle L. Walker, the cast’s only African-American, is an unconventional choice for, as she put it during the talkback session, “a Southern white woman,” although as I pointed out in reply there is little in the script that explicitly identifies the race of any of the characters (except the servants, who do not speak). Certainly there is an obvious assumption that a family of wealthy Southern cotton plantation owners is white, but the script doesn’t actually say so – any more than it confirms or denies the similar assumption that they are straight rather than gay. There have been all-black casts for Cat, but interracial casting is a somewhat daring artistic decision. Walker turns in a gutsy performance as a frustrated and powerless woman in the process of losing her husband and possibly her son, throwing around as many of those blocks as anyone. When I asked her, Walker said that she did not conceptualize her character as either white or black, but as a wife and mother.

Cat has come to be regarded as a “gay interest” play in the modern era, partly because this aspect is precisely what was surgically removed for the Hays Code film version in 1958, but that is a ridiculously narrow view of it. What the play is really about, if anything, is simple deceit – and living in the closet is merely a prominent example. There are hints that the friendship between Brick and his deceased friend Skipper was more than platonic, the root source of tension between Brick and Maggie. Big Daddy acquired the plantation from its owners, two “bachelor” men who shared a bedroom: Did they come to regard him as their adopted son, or was there possibly more to it? Brick is the favorite son because he is most like his father, and both he and Big Daddy share a degree of repulsion for their own wives. Men don’t speak their minds on such issues, not even within a family, certainly not in the 1950s, and when the confrontation comes because Big Daddy demands to know from Brick what has driven him to alcoholism, the results are not what would be expected.

In the modern world of social media where it is almost impossible to have separate private and public lives, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is an astonishingly contemporary reminder of why that may be necessary and desirable. Big Daddy defends it – “Think of all the lies I got to put up with! — Pretenses! Ain’t that mendacity? Having to pretend stuff you don’t think or feel or have any idea of?” – citing as examples how he doesn’t really like his wife Big Mama, his son Gooper, his daughter-in-law Mae, their children, the reverend, or even “Clubs! — Elks! Masons! Rotary! — crap!” In the morally ambiguous end, all of these characters want to be lied to.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Kira Hawkridge, at Epic Theatre, Theatre 82, 82 Rolfe Sq, Cranston. Through Jan 28. About 2h5m including 10m intermission. Refreshments, including alcoholic beverages, available for purchase. Handicap accessible. Adult themes and language not suitable for young children. Telephone: 401-490-9475

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