Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, by Tennessee Williams. Directed by David Auburn. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Michael Raymond-James and Rebecca Brooksher; photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware
"Living with someone you love can be lonelier. . .than living entirely alone."
Michael Raymond-James and Jim Beaver; photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware
Living is an issue in Tennessee Williams' great play "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof" which is currently opening the mainstage season at the Berkshire Theatre Group's Stockbridge facility, the Jack and Jane Fitzpatrick Stage. Living fully and effectively and through whatever it takes to maintain life is the subject here. Big Daddy Pollitt and his family are gathered in the Delta mansion on his 28,000 acre plantation to celebrate his 65th birthday. Big Daddy has just returned from an exploratory surgery to determine whether or not he has cancer. His eldest son, Gooper along with his wife Mae and their five children are in residence as is his younger son Brick with his wife Margaret known as Maggie, the Cat. Joining them for the festivities is Doctor Baugh, the family physician, and Reverend Tooker, the family priest. The play is set in Brick and Maggie's bedroom on the second floor with its multiple entrances - from the hallway, from the next room (Gooper and Mae's room) and from the balcony that skirts the house.
Often considered to be Williams' best play, this dysfunctional family comedy/drama takes a hard look at the dynamics of creation and sustainability. Brick and Maggie's marriage resides on a cliff-edge where morality is on the down side of that cliff and honesty is on the flat. Brick has broken his ankle and the entire play takes place around his massive, brass bed. Brick's eternally pregnant sister-in-law Mae spies on them through their connecting wall and his brother plots to remove him from any inheritance that might come his way.
Big Mama loves her husband and her baby boy but cannot abide her first-born, his wife or his children. Brick may or may not have had a same-sex relationship with his best friend and team-mate, Skipper, but Maggie has certainly had a one-night stand with this guy who is now dead and unable to relieve Brick of his deep guilt over their friendship and his loss. For years this friendship has been at the center of the controversy over this play: is it a gay play about guilt or is it a play about a man who cannot resolve his unexpressed feelings about loving another man? In truth this central conflict is not what this play is about. It is about family and truth and mendacity and the finding the necessary tools for living your life. It is about this issue, one that Tennessee Williams struggled with all of his life, ending his days as an irredeemable drunk, just like his hero in this play. Brick, in fact, may be the closest the playwright ever came to representing himself on stage - in a good play at least.
The production now playing in Stockbridge, MA suffers from a lot of other conflicts. Rebecca Brooksher who plays Margaret has a tendency to be shrill and hard to listen to at times. Michael Raymond-James who plays Brick has a tendency to mushmouth his lines rendering them totally unintelligible. Jim Beaver playing Big Daddy often repeats his lines as though needing to restart a speech.
This production also has fallen into the visual trap of casting a women who looks good as Big Mama. Ever since Midred Dunnock played the role in the first production on Broadway in 1955 there has been a tendency to keep a bird-like woman in the part. The lines consistently tells us that she is dumpy, is fat, has two chins and so on. Linda Gehringer plays the role beautifully and sensitively, but how much more interesting it would have been to go with Williams intention here. He describes her thus: "She is a short, stout woman. . .huffing and puffing like an old bulldog. . .she wears at least a half million in flashy gems." This is not the woman we get in Gehringer.
Jim Beaver is an excellent Big Daddy. However, he uses the infamous "f-word" constantly and that is not something Williams wrote or would have written for this play. The director, David Auburn, has said in a published statement "We will be taking a fresh look at this great American classic . . . aiming for a production that's as unexpected as it is visceral." It seems to me that he believes that by changing one harsh word to another he achieves this goal. Even with an actor as talented as Beaver in this role, those changes do not accomplish anything other than to occasionally shock us instead of letting the character be the old man who rose up from nothing and assisting the two gay men who owned the "farm" to be all-powerful in his limited world.
The biggest problem with the play is Michael Raymond-James. No matter what he does, either before or after the "click" - that point when the alcohol he consumes non-stop throughout the play no longer has any additional effect upon him - he does not present us with a Brick who has any redeeming qualities. It is always hard to like Brick. He is a sullen drunk, an bitter man plagued with difficult memories. But it is the actor's job, his duty, to make us at least sympathize with the man, perhaps even like him by the end. For me that switch never happened in this performance and I think that is in no small part due to his inability to play drunkeness and still say the lines the author gave him, lines we desperately need to hear.
Rebecca Brooksher does better with Maggie, but again only marginally. We see her for the seducer and controlling wench that she is, and her darkest secrets never allow us to empathize with her low-class past and her eagerness to be part of a superior family. This actress has lovely moments but her performance is a collection of bits of this and pieces of that and the transitions are edgey and sharp.
So, I didn't think any of the four principles were what and who they should be. I know the actors, all of them, to be talented, so I have to turn to the director for answers as to why they aren't the characters we need them to be. We can lay the errors at his feet and watch him kick them away if he can.
Jenn Harris is a perfect Mae, called Sister-Woman, and Timothy Gulan is an inoffensive Gooper, which is a task not often accomplished. Brian Russell seemed not a part of the pattern here as the family physician and David Adkins played Reverand Tooker for all the character is worth delivering the most solid and consistent performance of the evening other than that of Julianna Salinovicci as Dixie, the only "no-necked monstere" in evidence in this slightly pared-down edition.
Jason Sherwood's set was intriguing and with no doors left easy options for actors to walk through walls willy-nilly. Hunter Kaszorowski's costumes were suitable for their characters but didn't expand our image of the periof of the play in any way. Ann G. Wrightson contributed some excellent lighting and effects. David Alan Stern overcoached his actors in their dialects seeming choosing one for Brick that is intended to say drunk southerner but comes off much more non-educated Mississippi black.
It is always worthwhile seeing a good Tennessee Williams play. This is a good play. What you will find on stage is questionable, however, and that's too bad for there is so much wonderful potential in this company's ability to show what living is all about for southerners in the post WWII era.
Beaver, Brooksher, Brian Russell, David Atkins, Raymond-James, Linda Gehringer; photo: Emma Rotherbern-Ware
Cat On a Hot Tin Roof plays on the Berkshire Theatre Group's Fitzpatrick Mainstage, located at 6 East Street, Stockbridge, MA through July 16. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-997-4444 or go on line at www.berkshiretheatregroup.org.