2008-10-23 / News

THEATER REVIEW

Denial in the Delta A review of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof
By MICHAEL HORGAN

Denial in the Delta ...... A review of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof

Utterly, crushingly, powerfully poignant, the 2008-2009 Washington Little Theater's season opened the last two weekends with a gut-wrenching bang. Orchestrated by veteran director Sue Davidson (with assistance from aspiring director Anne Schiffner and a host of others), Tennessee Williams' Cat On A Hot Tin Roof came alive on the stage of the newly-named Bolton Lunceford Playhouse. The play was first produced in 1955 and then turned into a movie in 1958 starring Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, and Burl Ives. With the recent death of Paul Newman, the timing of this intense production is exquisite.

Set in the Mississippi Delta, the play  evokes a sultry Southern night mixed with a vicious family feud over the disposition of the Pollitt family plantation. "Big Daddy" Pollitt (played by Jeff Macchia) is celebrating his 65th birthday amidst the sobering news of his impending death due to a malignant cancer. Without a will, the family members jockey for control of the 28,000-acre plantation which Big Daddy had overseen  as a young man and later come to own. Never has so much acreage seemed so claustrophobic than in this two-act play set in the bedroom/sitting room of the  big house, where "Maggie the Cat" (Nicole Gautreaux) and Brick Pollitt (Hank Gautreaux) Maggie's husband and Big Daddy's favored son, are ensconced for the birthday weekend.

The curtains open to the two of them in mostly quiet and mostly one-way conversation about their quickly deteriorating marriage. As a first time performer on the Little Theater stage, Nicole Gautreaux makes an immediate impact as she shimmies (a la Ellen Barkin) out of her dressto reveal her costume for the first act, bare feet and a white slip.

Perhaps until her next role, Nicole may be perpetually known for "The Slip." She oozes the kind of sex appeal that Elizabeth Taylor would envy. But all her good looks, Southern charm, and feminine guile are wasted on her distant and alcoholic husband,

Brick. Maggie the Cat is desperate to bear a grandchild for Big Daddy, But Brick, struggling with his own convoluted feelings for his dead friend and former teammate Skipper, will not even touch her. Hence the play's title, as Maggie explains that even in the marital bed, she feels like a cat on a hot tin roof.

In his own Washington Little Theater'sdebut as Brick Pollitt, Hank Gautreaux brings to the stage movie-actor good looks  (think a muscular James Dean) and a simmering desperation, at himself, his wife, his family, and the world around him. In fact, during the first act, he never makes eye contact with Maggie except when he occasionally explodes with volcanic rage at Maggie's alternating pleading and taunting.  Whatever haunts him about his dead friend causes Brick to consume increasing quantities of Echo Springs bourbon, searching for "the click" in his head. The search requires long bouts of drinking and long periods of silence, which propels him to acerbically chastise his wife that her voice is spoiling his liquor. He also admonishes

Maggie that she can't conceive a child by a man that cannot stand her. Also in the first act we are introduced to the other cast members who will come  to the forefront later in the play. "Big Momma" Pollitt (played with uncanny accuracy by Cindy Russell) is the chattering, hen-pecked wife of the domineering plantation baron. She is desperate to keep her family functioning but in denial aboutBig Daddy's terminal illness and the lack of love in their 40-year marriage.

The older son, Gooper Pollitt, is iplayed with just the right amount of crafty sleaziness by Bradley Barber. Although Gooper refuses to acknowledge his father's lack of love for him, he nonetheless continues to maneuver for a big slice of the plantation. His conficence is betrayed by his continual glancing at what appears to be a betting sheet, as if he intends to spend his expected inheritance at the horse track.

Gooper's conniving wife Mae, portrayed convincingly by Cindy Barrow, is equl parts manipulation, trashiness, and "gless your heart" fakeness. She mistakenly believes that her road to fortune is paved with five grandkids for Big Daddy, with another on the way. Behind her back,the family refers to the kids as "those no-neck monsters." We also meet the cigar-chomping Doctor Baugh and James Barrow takes us back in time to when a rural doctor's house calls were just part of his obligation.

The second act is dominated by Big Daddy and Brick as they finally get in "the talk" they both crave. Their brutally honest conversation cuts through the "odor of mendacity" that has hung like a pallor over the family. Burl Ives won an Academy Award for his role as Big Daddy and Jeff Macchia plays the tyrannical patriarch to near perfection, even eerily resembling a younger Burl Ives. His mood is expansive, tolerant, and loving to his favored son, without knowing the family and his doctor have lied to him about the seriousness of his illness.

Brick finally opens up to him about his dead friend Skipper, whose friendship he describes as the one true, great, incorruptible relationship in his life. Unfortunately after a late night suicide-threatening call  from Skipper about the nature of their relationship, Brick hangs up on him and is tormented by the guilt forever.

At the end, Maggie announces to her family and Big Daddy a suspect pregnancy (seemingly impossible considering her relationship with her husband) and Brick backs her up, for a moment seeming to portent reconciliation.

In a wincing spotlight scene finale, Maggie the Cat states "I do love you, Brick," and Brick's response, "wouldn't it be funny if it were true," leaves the audience wondering if these two will ever find the peace and love they deserve. Maggie grew up in a hard-scrabble life with only two hand-me-down dresses. In the play, she wears only two dresses and one wonders if that is a metaphor for whether she has really come that far by marrying into the Pollitt dynasty. What is clear is that  these Tennessee Williams characters have sucked us into their individual miseries and made us dwell for a few hours in their bedrooms of broken dreams.

Sue Davidson is known as a director willing to tackle difficult but entertaining scripts. (Bias alert -- Sue is my great friend even though she instituted the unofficial bylaw of "no singing" for this reviewer.) She has proven her mastery of the theater time and again, again establishing the Washington little Theater as the hottest playhouse between Atlanta and Abbeville. Whether she is at the pinnacle of her career with "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof" we cannot be sure so her next project is greatly anticipated.

The director dedicates this performance to Carla Thaxton Brown, "a good friend, a great actress, and now one of heaven's most special angels."

(This unsolicited guest theater review expresses the opinions of the author and

does not necessarily represent the views

of this newspaper, its staff, or its management.) ........

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