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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1958 film of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"

There is something not normal inside the conventional world of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. A production of the 1955 play, directed by Greg Natale for the Irish Classical Theatre Company, opens this week at the Andrews Theatre. As the Pollitt family prepares to celebrate patriarch Big Daddy’s birthday, they are keeping a secret from him and his wife, Big Mama. The old man is dying of cancer, but in order to allow time to celebrate the birthday—and to maneuver for control of his vast fortune and enormous Mississippi delta plantation—his children have decided to lie.

This is only the most obvious lie in a house play that is constructed of layer upon layer of lies, deceptions, and delusions.

As the play begins, Big Daddy may not know that death will be almost immediate, but he is aware that his reign as pharaoh of the delta is in its decline. He is trying to get his house in order. He wants his son Brick to be his heir, to take over his affairs, and to continue the family line, but Brick is a man in torment. He has become a chronic alcoholic and won’t sleep with his wife Maggie.

It has often been remarked that Williams’ characters are stock character types, and that his plotting is melodramatic. This assessment, however, ignores the deft complexities of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Williams offers none of the pat resolutions that characterize melodrama. We will never learn with certainty what torments Brick and why he drinks. We will never know if Maggie’s efforts to conceive a child with her unwilling husband are successful. We will never know if Brick’s brother Gooper and his scheming wife Mae manage to wrestle control of the estate, or if the fortune will be squandered altogether under Brick’s alcoholic neglect. Williams constructs boxes within boxes, and just as we think we are about to arrive at clarity or closure, he tosses reversals into the mix. The only certainty in the world of this play is mortality itself.

Often Williams’ reversals emphasize the idea of mortality and its concomitant themes of change, regret, and the passage of time. During an Act II confrontation between Big Daddy and Brick, for instance, a clock chimes at pivotal moments, marking reversals in the discussion, while reminding Big Daddy of the time he has lost married to a woman he does not love—she bought the clock on an absurd shopping spree through Europe. Or one of Gooper and Mae’s obnoxious children will burst into the room, horrible representatives of the inevitable next generation.

Actors who play the characters in this play are inevitably asked questions that they cannot hope to answer with certainty. The actor who plays Brick, Neal Moeller in the Irish Classical Theatre production, is always asked if his character is actually a repressed homosexual. The script provides no definitive answer, and at a certain level, the actor’s answer is immaterial. It seems that Brick himself does not know. Big Daddy suspects, and accurately digs away at Brick’s mental torment, revealing the convenient lie that allows Brick to blame Maggie for his anguish. In fact, Big Daddy, played by Dan Walker, exposes that what disturbs Brick most is his own rejection of his best friend Skipper’s expression of love—a rejection that prompted the beloved friend’s suicide. This exposure prompts yet another reversal, as Brick unleashes his most potent weapon against Big Daddy, news of his mortality—“You told me! I told you!”

Williams exposes boxes within boxes within boxes, but we tantalizingly never arrive at the unplumbable core. Even in describing herself as a cat on a hot tin roof, Maggie admits that the point of her life eludes her. “What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?—I wish I knew…Just staying on it, I guess, as long as she can.”

A fascinating feature of Williams’ script is that his ostensibly most “normal” characters, upright and responsible Gooper and Mae, are actually his most monstrous. Maggie, played by Diane Curley at the Andrews, actually describes their offspring as no-neck monsters and asks why they’ve given dog names to these children. And yet Gooper and Mae, played by Eric Rawski and Kelly Ferguson-Moore, are upright and responsible citizens, sober, solidly married, parents to children. Nonetheless, Big Daddy despises them.

Indeed, Big Daddy’s notion of the normal is surprisingly fluid; in effect, he thinks a man creates his own world, and commands his own norms. He likes Maggie, the bride who grew up in poverty and who enjoys his vulgar humor, and he regrets his more conventional decisions, particularly his marriage to Big Mama, played by Sheila McCarthy. He determines that he would prefer to replace Big Mama with an attractive young woman he can strip naked and cover in diamonds and furs—conventions be damned. He admires homosexual men who have lived their lives on their own terms and makes it clear to Brick that if he is homosexual, he should find a way come to terms with that, too.

Brick is the major enigma at the center of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Tennessee Williams’ several revisions of the script center around this character. The homosexual men who formerly owned Big Daddy’s plantation, taking him in and advancing him in life, were replaced in the film by a grandfather figure—Brick sleeps in their room, and suspects that Big Daddy put him there to make a point. Director Elia Kazan requested censorship of the original script, but Williams restored material for a 1974 production directed by Michael Kahn that starred Elizabeth Ashley as Maggie, Keir Dullea as Brick, and Fred Gwynne as Big Daddy. (This is the version most often performed today.) The 1958 film, starring Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie and Paul Newman as Brick, with Burl Ives recreating his Broadway performance as Big Daddy, actually provides melodramatic closure, in which Brick summons Maggie to the bedroom, presumably to help make her lie about being pregnant a reality.

Amazingly, Williams’ dramatic situation is so solid and his characters are so vivid that the play successfully and satisfyingly survives these alterations and distortions. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of Williams’ most popularly produced plays. Barbara Bel Geddes and Ben Gazzara were the original Maggie and Brick, but the roles have also been played by Kathleen Turner and Daniel Hugh Kelly (1990, with Charles Durning and Polly Holiday as Big Daddy and Big Mama); Jason Patric and Ashley Judd in 2003; and Terrence Howard and Anika Noni Rose (in 2008, with James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad as Big Daddy and Big Mama).

In Buffalo, Studio Arena Theatre produced the play several years ago, and the Irish Classical Theatre has produced the play before, in a production that featured Drew Kahn as Brick and Maureen Porter as Maggie, with Richard Hummert as Big Daddy.

The story endures with audiences, presumably because people still tell lies to each other and to themselves, and because we still rage against fate and mortality. The production runs through February 6 at the Andrews Theatre (625 Main Street, 853-ICTC).