Reviewed by Judy Richter
Tennessee Williams has created some memorable characters in his best plays, but perhaps the largest group of them can be found in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." American Conservatory Theater brings them vividly to life again in a production directed by Israel Hicks.
The story takes place one summer evening about 1955 in a plantation house in the Mississippi Delta. The Pollitt family has gathered to celebrate Big Daddy's (Jack Willis) 65th birthday, but not everyone is feeling festive. Big Daddy's daughter-in-law Maggie (Reną© Augesen) seethes with frustration. Her husband, Brick (Michael James Reed), refuses to sleep with her, has quit his job and spends all his time drinking. Moreover, Brick's older brother, Gooper (Rod Gnapp), his pregnant wife, Mae (Anne Darragh), and their five bratty children (Maggie calls them "the no-neck monsters") are there fawning over Big Daddy, hoping to gain his favor when he writes his will.
Big Daddy hasn't been in good health, but after extensive examinations and tests, he's been told he has only a spastic colon, not the cancer he had feared. However, he and his wife, Big Mama (Katherine McGrath), don't know what the others know: that he has cancer that has spread throughout his body. But until he and Big Mama learn the truth, they celebrate.
Willis captures Big Daddy's larger than life persona, his blunt truthfulness and his concern for what's becoming of Brick. Augesen embodies Maggie's sexiness and sexual frustration as well as her determination to overcome the poverty of her childhood. Gnapp and Darragh practically reek of hypocrisy as they try to wheedle their way into Big Daddy's good graces and to demean Maggie and Brick. For his part, Reed's Brick seems indifferent to everything, but one senses that much of his behavior is motivated by self-loathing, especially by his fear that his friendship with the late Skipper was homosexual or came close to being homosexual. McGrath's Big Mama initially comes across as shallow and flighty, but when she senses a threat to Big Daddy, she's a woman of steel.
The cast also includes Julian LąĄpez-Morillas as Reverend Tooker, James Carpenter as Doctor Baugh and Fannie Lee Lowe as Sookey, a put-upon servant. The handsome set -- Maggie and Brick's high-ceiling bedroom with a bar, French doors leading to the veranda, other furniture and the double bed right in the center -- is by Ralph Funicello. Russell H. Champa's lighting reflects the passage of time. The sound is by Fitz Patton, the '50s costumes by Sandra Woodall.
Act 1 is virtually a monologue for Maggie as she talks to Brick, who's on crutches after injuring his ankle by jumping hurdles at 3 a.m. Big Daddy takes the spotlight in Act 2 as he tries to find out why Brick drinks so much. This is the scene where Brick decries the mendacity all around them. The other characters appear briefly in those acts before all of them confront one another in Act 3.
This is Tennessee Williams at his best, and this production shows why.