Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Eric Peterson. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Renata Eastlick, Loren Dunn as Margaret and Brick; photo: Richard Howe
"I can stay on it just as long as I have to."
Tennessee Williams' play "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" set tongues wagging and people running in 1955 when Elia Kazan directed it on Broadway. Barbara Bel Geddes Maggie, the Cat staggered audiences with her innate sexuality and Ben Gazzara's steamy good looks as Brick, bare-chested and bare-legged, literally caused steam to rise from occupied seats. Add to this the dramatic punch of Burl Ives and Mildred Dunnock as Big Daddy and Big Mama, the surly sleaziness of Pat Hingle and Madeleine Sherwood as Gooper and Sister Woman and you had a southern family that truly made the world sit up and take notice. "Cat. . ." is surely one of the great plays of the latter half of the twentieth century; it won the Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics Circle Award. It was also the first play to honestly deal with the idea of sports heroes being homosexual and women using their progeny production as a means to a fiscal end. That it was a hit in 1955 is amazing.
The popular film version starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman (along with Burl Ives and Madeleine Sherwood) soft-pedaled the major issues of the play, complying with the era's production code and so the American public, aware of the show through the movie, has not been exposed to the raw edge that Williams and Kazan created.
The current production at the Oldcastle Theatre Company's downtown performance space in Bennington, Vermont is doing its best to rectify that situation. This excellent staging by the founding company artistic director, Eric Peterson, has added a visual element that I thought would work against the play, a woman of color as Maggie, the Cat. However, I am happy to report that she is not only a fine actress, but that she is absolutely the right choice at this time for this role. Renata Eastlick, a Brazlian-American actress is positively riveting on stage. You cannot take your eyes off her and when another actor claims your attention you immediately want to see her reaction to what has been said or done. This play has never belonged to one character before, but this time around it almost does.
As her injured hero husband, Brick Pollitt, Loren Dunn has many challenges to overcome. Not quite a steamer, he is a handsome, tall, commanding figure with a fine voice and flashing eyes. His principal responsibility in this play is to be defensively drinking for two and a half hours and the subtle changes Dunn creates in this role make for marvelous acting. He is totally believeable in the role of a man who is struggling to come to grips with honesty and mendacity, truth and lies. Dunn seems, at times, to be truly suffering the pains of his character, but a good actor can do that and make you feel like an eavesdropper rather than an audience and that is what he makes happen this "role" around.
Paul Romero is fine as Big Daddy Pollitt, using his size to show us his physical and emotional pain in many different ways. His long second-act scene with Brick embraced every emotion a man can feel for his son with depth and force. As his wife, Big Mama, Melissa Hurst was almost his equal. Witnessing her pain as she refused to accept painful realities was almost as painful for us.
Their son, Gooper, was played with clarity and that awful trace of ugliness the role demands by Anthony Michael Irizarry. His wife Mae, Sister-Woman, was played with a hard edge that almost completely removed any sympathy for her or her husband by Jody June Schade. Together they were despicable; separately they were a trial; they were just what Williams wanted them to be, an exaggeration that is too true to be real.
Richard Howe was fine as the doctor and Tom Ferguson made the most of the unreal Reverend Tooker who leaves the scene just before the best moments are played out, a decision on the part of the playwright that I have never understood. The rest of the cast of characters were well portrayed in overly loud voice-overs.
Played out on a set designed beautifully by W.M. Aupperlee, performed in period costumes created by Christine Decker, under the excellent lighting by Keith Chapman, Eric Peterson has directed one of the best productions imaginable of this wonderful play. The opportunity to experience it is one that cannot be taken lightly. Like its subject matter it needs to become a part of your conscious mind.
Cat on a Hit Tin Roof plays through October 12 at Oldcastle Theatre Company located at 331 Main Street, Bennington, Vermont. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-447-1267 or go on line at www.oldcastletheatre.org