Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is the opening play of the Bloomington Area Arts Council’s performance series. “Cat…” is heavily weighted rather than lifted by language and repetition. It’s a period piece that has lost its power to shock or terrorize. In the Detour Theatre production, director Terrence Hartnett has wisely sought what Williams may have wanted all along, simple sympathy for the characters.
Stephanie Harrison as the childless daughter-in law, Maggie the cat, opens the show with a nearly act-long monologue delivered in a warm, buttery, syrup laden accent that sharply contrasts with the coolness of her thinking and the obvious frustration with her husband, the alcoholic ex-athlete, former golden boy and favored son, Brick, played by Mike Price.
Through much of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,’ Brick’s role is that of a sullen bystander to his own life. It’s a difficult role and Price does a masterful job with this and with the final explosions and revelations of the play.
Competing with Maggie and Brick for the affection and inheritance of the dying family patriarch, Big Daddy, are older brother Gooper and his grasping, but fertile, wife Mae. Amy Wendling, as Mae, was as scheming and manipulative a southern belle as you can imagine. Lee Parker seemed bemused and gentle ironic in the role of the mysteriously unloved older son.
Simply said, Marcia Dangerfield played both the warmth, the simple crudeness and the bafflement of the family matriarch, Big Mama, quite perfectly.
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” takes place on the day when Big Daddy, played by Joe Gaines, turns sixty-five. He is being fooled into believing that he can forget the fear of cancer that has haunted him for the past three years. Freed from this burden, he lays out crude plans for some sexual profligacy and at the same time seeks to learn about what is keeping Brick and Maggie apart. As they talk, Big comes across as a hard, crude, egotist but also a man of remarkably broad sympathies. It is in the heat of their probing confrontation that the angered Brick tells him the truth.
In the final moments of the play we hear the off-stage anguished cries of Big Daddy’s pain as Maggie offers to trade Brick some of the alcohol that he craves for the sex that she wants.
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” has lost some of the scratch and bite that its sexual themes held over the years. It’s a long show and the flowery language with its seeming repetition of line after line can be wearing. However it’s still a richly voyeuristic glimpse into the darkly gothic world of the south. There is the complex unraveling of the family mysteries. And there’s the surprising sympathy we feel for all of its characters in the Detour Theatre production. This still makes for some moving theatre.
Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the John Waldron Arts Center plays this Friday and Saturday at eight and Sunday at two.