Sunday, February 26, 2006

opening-weekend review of *Cat on a Hot Tin Roof*

through March 11 at Spokane Civic Theatre

A world with no lying and no selfishness — too bad it’s not our world. But that’s the dream of *Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.* Tennessee Williams intends to slice through the lies that infect us the same way a surgeon would cut out the cancer in Big Daddy Pollitt’s boastful belly. His play even acknowledges that truth can be built on lies. But we have to scramble through the lies and get to the truth, at whatever cost.

Fresh off its 50th anniversary, *Cat* underlines its symbolic beds and crutches repeatedly, fearful that we might not catch its point. Which would be tedious — except that the smell of mendacity still hovers around us, fouling our lives. Williams took on capital-letter Life and Death in this drama, his finest achievement, and director Jessica McLaughlin’s cast at the Civic (through March 11) responds with a very good production indeed.

While the major roles are all played well, the big star here is McLaughlin’s direction. She adds interpretations that reinforce meaning throughout. When repressed, alcoholic Brick (Damon C. Mentzer) first hears that his Big Daddy is dying, he hides his head under a towel — an ostrich in denial, at a moment when even whiskey doesn’t offer enough relief. Twice, Brick’s pillow is gently emphasized — very much in keeping with Williams’ use of symbols. Maggie the Cat (Chasity Kohlman) relates the story of her impoverished childhood — she had hardly anything to wear — even as she puts on a flouncy scarlet dress, transforming herself into the desperate seductress she needs to be. After the long and private conversation of Act One, in which both Kohlman and Mentzer are masterful — McLaughlin starts both the second and third acts with well-managed explosions of activity. She elicits emotional impact from the way both Kohlman and, later, Lauren Bathurst as Big Daddy slowly, tenderly try to touch Brick’s shoulder. McLaughlin employs Elia Kazan’s trick of presentational soliloquies, with Maggie and Big Daddy especially often delivering speeches right at the audience as if directing their accusations right at us.
McLaughlin makes some missteps — the father-son confrontation in Act Two drags, and she allows Caryn Hoaglund’s sister-in-law to overact her false pleasantries — but McLaughlin generally coordinates everything from Peter Hardie’s set (Mississippi Delta elegance) to his lighting design (dust specks caught in the shutters’ shadows) to the antics of Gooper and Mae’s no-neck monsters.

Maggie’s is the title role because *Cat* is about her stratagems for survival in the face of relatives who don’t trust her and a husband who’s disgusted by her. The play hinges on the credibility of her desperation. Especially in Act One, Kohlman revealed how much of Maggie’s rage to survive depends on her ability to play-act. She introduces and mocks the other characters for Brick’s benefit, hinting at the ability for improvisation needed by any cat with overheated paws. Kohlman physicalizes the role well, joining her hands in a pleading gesture, arching her eyebrows in derision, writhing seductively from across the room — anything to get Brick’s cooperation in her survival plan. She’s less effective, however, when Maggie is at her most angry and desperate. Exchanges about Brick’s “godlike” status and the whole tragic story of Brick’s repressed passion for another man veered too close to melodrama. But those were relatively small weaknesses in a Kohlman’s lively characterization of Maggie.

Bathurst’s rendition of the plantation patriarch does the reverse: less convincing in storytelling mode, but powerful in the father’s desperate outreach to his son. Both Brick and Big Daddy have become so cynical and disillusioned that they laugh at the notion that their wives might actually love them. (“Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true?” they both ask, though McLaughlin, using Williams’ most optimistic conclusion, cuts Brick’s echo of his father’s line). Bathurst, a Big Daddy less portly and more upright than most, gets mileage out of pushing and forcing his son toward the truth. Bathurst confronts the sobering truth about Big Daddy’s mortality with a slight stagger, stoic resignation and a noble exit.

Playing a drunk with a crutch, Mentzer is most notable for when and how he chooses to break out of Brick’s alcoholic denial. He can be brutal, capping one of his wife’s tirades with “Did you say something to me, Maggie?” And he can be surprising, laughing at others’ cruel jokes, contributing outbursts just when you’d forgotten he was still over there on the balcony, nursing his highball. Brick wanted to love Skipper physically and couldn’t, doesn’t want to love Maggie in that same way and forces himself (in the optimistic script used here) to consider contemplating it anyway. Mentzer makes him brick-like, impervious, just as he should.

Maggie, of course, insists at scraping out the mortar beneath him and all around him. McLaughlin’s production at the Civic emphasizes how Big Daddy, working separately, joins her in the project. Piercing through denial, discarding the little lies we tell ourselves, destroying mendacity — Williams’ project in *Cat* should become our own. Things are heating up, we’re all anxious — and reaching for another drink is not going to solve our problems.

For a revised version of this review with comments on Jean Hardie's performance as Big Mama, please pick up a copy of the March 2 *Inlander.*

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