Review by Jack Kirchhoff
Before the Chautauqua Theater Company’s excellent production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opens, the arriving audience sees the set: Brick and Maggie’s bedroom in the mansion of Brick’s father, Big Daddy Pollitt, self-made proprietor of the biggest cotton plantation on the Mississippi Delta.
It’s 1955. The bedroom is attractive enough, with a bed, a frilly dressing table, a pretty bench at the foot of the bed, a chair with an ottoman and four French doors shrouded with gauzy curtains. But what demands your attention is the upstage wall: shelf after shelf of whisky bottles, floor to ceiling and the width of the stage. You could think it’s wallpaper, but it soon becomes apparent that they are in fact real bottles, dozens of them, maybe hundreds, gradually emptier the farther up the wall they are placed. Director Lisa Rothe and designer Lee Savage have staged a beautifully executed and perfectly evocative coup de théâtre. And the play hasn’t even started yet.
So it doesn’t give much away to say that Brick (an effortlessly sexy Peter Mark Kendall) has a drinking problem. He’s drinking from the moment he comes onstage and continues throughout the show. The night before, it turns out, he took a drunken header while trying to jump hurdles at his old high school at 3 a.m., and is now hobbling around on a crutch, one foot in a cast. And that’s not the only way Brick is damaged, not by a long shot.
Nor is alcoholism the only big issue addressed by Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1955 drama. Never one to shy away from important and controversial themes, the playwright flays his characters to the bone in this examination of greed, lust, social mores, family values, truth, lies, death and — perhaps most significantly — homosexuality.
Spoiler alert: Some plot points are going to be given away over the next few paragraphs. It can’t be helped. If you know nothing about the play, have never seen the movie adaptation starring Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor and Burl Ives, among others, and if you want to be surprised, then you should stop reading right now.
No? Still with us? All right then. The Pollitt family is gathered to celebrate the 65th birthday of patriarch Big Daddy (veteran character actor Harris Yulin), who has been deathly ill but has recently been told he’s going to live. In residence as well are Big Mama (Candy Buckley), his long-suffering wife; Brick and Maggie, favored Pollitt son and his not-quite-so-favored wife; and unfavored son Gooper (could there be a less-attractive nickname?) and his bountifully fertile wife, Mae (Matthew Raich and Mallory Portnoy).
The first act is almost entirely Maggie, the “cat” of the title. Carly Zien is outstanding, investing the role with both smoldering heat and vulnerability, with hints of cool calculation and flashes of down-market sluttiness. The act is practically a Maggie monologue, setting the scene, establishing the background and the characters, with Brick providing occasional responses monosyllabic and apathetic — with gusts up to cruel.
One of those pieces of background is the fact that Maggie slept with Skipper, Brick’s lifelong friend, frat brother, football teammate and roommate, just before Skipper killed himself. Maggie compares the friendship of Brick and Skipper to “Greek legend,” and it’s clear she’s referring to something more than a little homoerotic: Damon and Pythias, Achilles and Patroclus, Alexander and Hephaestion. She claims she and Skipper had sex so they could both get closer to Brick.
Brick’s relationship with Skipper is just one of many secrets in the Pollitt household. (Director Rothe has compared the play to reality television; “Big Brother,” maybe, with surveillance cameras poking into everyone’s lives. The audience is the camera eye in this case, and it’s a fascinating place to be.)
One of the most significant secrets of the household is the fact that Big Daddy is dying of a cancer that is consuming his vital organs. Everyone knows this except him and Big Mama; they believe he is suffering from “spastic colon.” At some point in the evening, his family means to tell him the truth — but only after a lot of jockeying for position in the inheritance sweepstakes. In Act 2, Gooper and Mae and their children — and let me give a shout-out to the three young actors who carry off these ridiculously difficult, cute/obnoxious roles — perform a hilarious “We Love You” song and dance number for Big Daddy. It’s a hoot that hurts.
But Big Daddy himself — feeling good, confident now that he thinks he’s going to live — insists on engaging Brick in a good old father-and-son talk, whether Brick wants it or not. (Brick calls it a “talking jag”.) The rest of the family is kicked out of the room, sent to watch the fireworks marking Big Daddy’s 65th, though they do have a way of coming back to eavesdrop.
In these tense, gripping (and sometimes surprisingly funny) scenes, Yulin chews the scenery. Big Daddy tells of his plans to enjoy life, including paying to have sex with women, and reveals his lifelong distaste — who knew? — for Big Mama. He talks about Brick’s alcoholism, his childless marriage and his relationship with Skipper. He also exhibits an unexpected sympathy for homosexuality, though Brick is thoroughly disgusted at the notion that he and Skipper might have …
Act 3? Well, enough has been revealed. Let’s just say that deeply greedy motives come to the surface, Big Mama steps up, Maggie achieves a bit of a victory and things are wrapped up to the extent that they can be, along with a dollop or two of ambiguity.
What we have here, finally, is a classic of 20th century American drama, tastefully and meticulously directed and beautifully designed, and performed by a skillful cast that shines from top to bottom. Really, you can’t go wrong. Go see it.
Jack Kirchhoff is a recently retired arts journalist from Toronto. In the past 35 years at The Globe and Mail, he has been publishing reporter, theater critic and book review editor, among other things.