The “hothouse,” loquacious and “southern-fried” appeal of Tennessee Williams’ classic Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is very evident in the scorching, white-hot production now inaugurating the new season of the newly-renovated Keegan Theatre. In this unexpurgated edition of the play (as distinct from the Elia Kazan Broadway play and the bowdlerized Paul Newman film), the play’s themes take on more explicit and frank meanings. Keegan Theatre has done a superb job of producing what may be, indeed, the most craftsman-like and solid of all the plays in Williams’ illustrious canon.
As the play unfolds in real time (one hot summer evening on the plantation of Big Daddy on thousands of acres of the richest Delta in Mississippi), Co-Directors Mark A. Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea pace their cast perfectly to capture all the myriad themes of death, denial, greed, mercy and redemption in this breathtaking classic. An impeccable sense of firm directorial control caresses this production from start to finish and the results pay off in utter respect for the text, totally fresh and quirky interpretations of these well-known characters and above-par technical components.
Williams (a Catholic convert) —and the grandson of an Episcopalian Minister —-was clearly closer to the Catholic themes of guilt, mercy, absolution and redemption that define the Catholic faith (and that permeate so many of his writings). Co-Directors Rhea instinctively understand this as well as the link between Eros and death that so defines this play. Like his obvious forebears, Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence, Williams propelled his literary vision into a universal vision through the fusion of compelling, subversive, and transcendent themes.
The construction of the play does, truly, move like clockwork. Like the ticking of the clock that moves this masterwork in real time, this cast works with a tight compression and unity.
Directors Mark and Susan Rhea have assembled a pitch-perfect cast beginning with the protagonist, Maggie, played with an intriguing blend of cerebral passion and sensuality by Brianna Letourneau. Letourneau’s long non-stop monologues in Act One are a triumph of the actor’s art as Letourneau alternates between attempts at endearment and cool–blooded calculation. There are several moments when Letourneau breaks the fourth wall just standing and delivering her impassioned lines. Like a scorched, white-hot creature of passion, Letourneau is a knockout!
As the embittered and sullen Brick, who has been swept into an alcoholic stupor from his dying dreams of past glories on the football field, the fractured relationship with his wife, and guilt over the death of his true friend, Kevin Hasser has a very difficult role to play and he does it brilliantly. The part is written with very few spoken lines yet the despairing silences and pangs of guilt embodied in Hasser’s very concentrated performance speak volumes. Hasser manages to totally capture attention with the smallest gesture —whether fumbling for an ice cube or begging for a fallen crutch. His confession of a clean love for his friend Skipper —which others have labeled as suspect and degenerate ––is wrenching and heartbreaking. You cannot take your eyes off Hasser even when he is simply standing on the sidelines.
The chilling highlight of this production is the expert staging of the prolonged yet extremely gripping “contest of wills” between the embittered character of Brick (Hasser) and the stingingly honest, earthy, dying Big Daddy (Kevin Adams) as they face the “mendacity” of their lives. Brick covers up his disgust at a perceived sexual encounter by plastering himself with liquor and Big Daddy will not easily face up to his impending diagnosis of cancer. Indeed, the entire play bears re-analysis as, perhaps, the defining play of our age on the interfusion of the life force, facing the truth, and death and denial.
As portrayed by Adams, this Big Daddy takes his good ole time in order to deliver the truth of his earthy yet accurate statements on the human condition and the hypocrisies swirling around him. Instead of merely shouting (like so many predecessors who have played this part), Adams underplays for an even more dramatic impact.
As the doting Big Mama, Linda High emphasizes a very loud brashness in her interpretation and this approach serves her nicely as a blustery “cover-up” to her real feelings of love for her husband and her entire family. High’s vulnerability seeps through– especially in the scene when she is told the truth of Big Daddy’s real health condition.
Kerri Rambow, as the manipulative, gossipy, fertile Mae, brings just the right mixture of pettiness, smug respectability and manipulation to her role as the sister-in-law who has her sights on a hefty inheritance. Colin Smith matches her as her husband, Gooper. Smith plays the part with a beleaguered mix of bureaucratic authority conjoined with an air of ignorance as regards any thought remotely smacking of intelligence.
The rest of the supporting cast fulfill their functions admirably and are directed skillfully as they converse on the set’s marvelously –constructed side galleries, in animated group scenes (replete with “Altman-esque” underlapping dialogue) and just sauntering along behind the opaque screen at the very deep rear extension of the stage space.
Indeed, the Scenic Design by Matthew Keenan is a marvel of functionality wedded to aesthetic appeal. Keenan captures the feel of the period while still maintaining classical clean lines that help to showcase the talent in the foreground. The set and the set’s furniture is appropriately conveyed in shades of white and off-white. (An aborted column on each side of the stage are on hand to, perhaps, show the decay of life and the slow death of this particular world order?) As mentioned, the extreme depth of the set’s construction, the side galleries and doors, and the opaque screen at the rear (to suggest concurrent events and conversations) all add to the evocative ambience.
Sound Design by Tony Angelini is another joy to behold from the sounds of birds tweeting, thunder brewing and fireworks being set off in the skies. Costumes by Erin Nugent are perfectly appropriate and serve as compliments to these very authentic characters. Lighting Design by Michael Innocenti is fulfilling and respectable but could use some variation and nuance during some of the more emotional moments of the play.
Sitting in this beautifully and naturally renovated Theatre replete with larger lobby space, stadium seating and redone chairs was a pleasure; the intimate charm of the old Keegan Theatre has only been enhanced through the renovation process.
Keegan Theatre’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a production of unique beauty, density and texture. It is a magnificent inaugural presentation for the beloved, new Keegan Theatre. Do not miss this one!
Running Time: Three hours with one 15-minute intermission, and one 5-minute intermission.