“Maggie the Cat” is sharpening her claws as Tennessee Williams’s classic American drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opens at the Cincinnati Shakespeare theater. The Pulitzer Prize winning play tells the story of the moral decay, the dissolution and greed of an affluent Southern Mississippi family in the mid-1950’s when the family realizes that the patriarch is dying of cancer and has not prepared a will to disseminate the vast estate. There are many intricate and interrelated themes which unfurl like a flag as the play progresses. Even though this is not a Shakespeare play, there are many Shakespearean themes including social mores, sexual desires, intergenerational communications (or lack thereof), the prospect of imminent death, and an often-repeated word mendacity, defined by the characters as “lies and liars”.
The play opens in the bedroom of Brick Pollitt (Grant Niezgodski) and his wife, Maggie (Maggie Lou Rader) who are preparing for the 65th birthday of Brick’s father, Big Daddy, portrayed bombastically by Jim Hopkins. Immediately, we see that all is not well between Brick and Maggie. Brick has broken his leg trying to recapture his storied youth as a star football player by trying to leap hurdles while drunk. They are childless and Maggie is trying to seduce her husband who clearly is not interested in her and takes refuge in a bottle. Niezgodski is initially taciturn as Maggie rails about her treatment at the hands of Brick’s brother Gooper (Justin McCombs) and his wife Mae (Kelly Mengelkoch) and the feeling that the couple are colluding to steal the estate when Big Daddy dies. However, as the act progresses, Brick becomes increasingly agitated when Maggie mentions his relationship with an old football teammate, Skipper, who committed suicide years before. Brick’s friendship with Skipper becomes an ongoing question throughout the play until it finally explodes in a father-to-son discussion with Big Daddy. How deep and how sexual was Brick’s involvement with Skipper? The whole family assumes that it was immoral but Brick angrily rejects the notion. Big Daddy accuses Brick of being disgusted with himself which is a contributing factor in his increasing alcoholism. Brick, literally and figuratively, uses a crutch throughout the play as his impotency in life and in bed manifests itself.
In the third act (yes there are three acts with two intermissions), we see the web of deceit tightening on the entire family. Gooper has called a family meeting (sans Big Daddy) to announce that the cancer diagnosis showed malignancy. The family, including doctor, had lied to Big Daddy. Gooper has developed a succession plan and is trying to convince Big Mamma (Amy Warner) to agree.
The acting in this show is superb with outstanding direction by Michael Evan Haney. Niezgodski as Brick functions mostly as a somewhat bemused observer but becomes highly agitated when confronted with his relationship with Skipper and through the emotionally charged confrontation with Big Daddy. The actor gets a lot of exercise lugging a plaster cast around the stage. Rader (Maggie) moves seamlessly between seductress, sycophant with Big Daddy and outraged victim of Gooper and Mae’s sarcastic condescension. Jim Hopkin is titanic and volcanic in his interpretation of Big Daddy. Hopkins is a big man, replete with a bushy white beard, who intimidates and belittles everyone in the household except Brick. Brick is the only person whom Big Daddy likes and we see the softer side of the character in the man-to-man discussion with Brick. Warner, as Big Momma, transitions from a cowered wife to a position of strength as she begins to assume the mantle of matriarch in the wake of her husband’s impending death. Justin McCombs (whom we are used to seeing in comedic roles) is almost unrecognizable as Gooper who smarmily tries to steal the estate while still trying to gain the respect of his father. Mengelkoch (Mae) is deliciously devious as she tries to drive a wedge between Maggie, Brick and Big Daddy. Other characters serve small but significant dramatic roles.
The single set, which is Brick and Maggie’s bedroom, is an interesting mix of elegant affluence with some old-fashioned upholstery and a somewhat garish (for Big Daddy) chandelier which Big Mamma bought during a European spending spree. Scenic Designer Shannon Moore states in an article in the playbill that the big question was: why does all the action take place in the bedroom? Her answer was that this explained the lack of privacy in the family with no secrets because of constant eavesdropping. The lighting adds to the scene with rear-screen projection which shows the passage of time.
This is a complex, multi-layered play which you would expect from an American masterpiece. Overall, it is dark but there is considerable comedy sprinkled throughout as Williams spotlights the hypocrisy of the family and the social mores of an increasingly decadent South. Also, please note, that there are many sexual references, some crude language and some nasty but unforgettable characters.
Overall, this has been an extraordinary season and this production is worthy of acclaim. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Theater through April 28. The next production is the classic farce Noises Off.