Cast, direction key in staging Williams’ intricate, sprawling drama.
It’s a tall order. Take a text-heavy, controversial play with big, complex characters set in the Deep South, stage it in a ski town at 8,000 feet and cast it from a talent base of 7,500.
Sierra Classic Theatre, now in its 10th year, loves such challenges and kicks off its anniversary season with a searing version of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” a “Southern Gothic” tale of family politics, death and sexuality, which opened Feb. 19 at the Mammoth Lakes Arts Center.
“Cat” focuses on the turbulent relationship of the sexually charged Maggie (“The Cat”) and her booze-binging husband, Brick Pollitt, during the course of an evening at the Pollitt’s Mississippi estate to celebrate the birthday of patriarch and tycoon “Big Daddy.”
Maggie endures an unfulfilling marriage to Brick, an ex-football star, who infuriates her with his drinking and ignorance of his brother Gooper’s attempts to gain control of the family business. Meanwhile, Big Daddy’s doctor, family and even his preacher conspire to keep vital information from him and his wife, Big Mama, all preening and posturing in hopes of securing a share of his vast fortune.
At first, you may think the play is about “truth,” but at best that’s a secondary concern. For my money, “Cat” is about lies, those we tell others and ourselves, and the facades we put up to conceal them.
The key word is “mendacity,” meaning a lie or falsehood, a term Brick uses to describe his “disgust” with the lies inherent in the aging, crumbling Southern society, and its conventional code of social conduct. Ironically, the South is the perfect venue for such analysis. An extension of his dysfunctional Dixie upbringing, to Williams Southerners aren’t any different when it comes to lying; they’re just better at it.
Far more than its 1958 film counterpart, the play also examines repressed homosexuality in an “old” South that resents the changes associated with the modern era as much as it did being part of the Union 100 years earlier.
Finding actors for the show’s larger-than-life leads could have proven to be an almost futile task. As luck would have it, not only were they here, but several relative newcomers proved to be almost destined for their roles.
Dee Osborne, first seen in SCT’s 2007 “Dance of Death” murder mystery, has worked in theater mostly behind the scenes, but she may want to consider more auditions, based on her sassy, smarmy, sarcasm-filled delivery of Mae, Gooper’s all-too-fertile wife.
Speaking of which, it’s been a while since audiences have seen Michael Dostrow (he last appeared onstage while in medical school), but like riding a bicycle, he got the role and started pedaling, bringing off the opportunistic, resentful Gooper as if he’s never been away.
Ted Carleton made his stage debut as the comedic Gary Peter Lefkowitz in last year’s “I Hate Hamlet.” The boozing, withdrawn, brutally handsome Brick may be a totally different character, but he bottles and uncorks his frustrations with marriage, family and a game (football) he can no longer play like a natural.
From her first entrance, Jarrett Smith (“Bus Stop”) is positively electric as Big Mama. But if her clomping around in heels, a gaudy dress and too much bling seems to be merely comic relief to lighten the otherwise heavy mood, remember: this is Tennessee Williams. By the end of the first act, Smith expertly reveals deeper layers to her character that will soon come home to roost after intermission.
Big Daddy is a character that lives up to his name: imposing, outspoken and Southern nouveau riche crude, a personality as big as the 28,000-acre cotton plantation he inherited. High Sierra Energy Foundation Executive Director Rick Phelps makes quite a splash in his Eastern Sierra stage debut, at once commanding yet conflicted, but also managing to project Big Daddy’s specter, even in scenes when he’s not on stage.
With a hurricane of emotion raging around her, the eye of that storm is arguably the terminally pretty Maggie, purr-fectly played by Chad Langley, who besides looking stunning in a slip, also tempers the show’s extreme emotional rampages. (Another newbie to the stage, Langley was also in SCT’s “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.”) Hardly an Elizabeth Taylor knockoff, Langley owns the part, slyly and wryly slinking catlike through intricate monologues like a cool evening breeze through the moss-strewn trees.
Greg Young is perfect as the Preacher in search of a new air-conditioning system, and Dan Dennis demonstrates a decided lack of bedside manner as Dr. Baugh (hypodermic needle, anyone?). Both are solid in supporting roles, part of the unscrupulous circle of deceit surrounding Big Daddy.
And the show wouldn’t be complete without the “no-neck monsters,” rambunctiously played by young thesps Julia Cage (Dixie), Billy McDaniel (Sonny), Charity McDaniel (Trixie) and Trinity Dostrow (Polly).
Having helmed 7 shows since the summer of 2007, director Shira Dubrovner probably gets her energy from the same place as her creative talent: an obvious love of her work, which combined with a first-rate cast and crew got “Cat” audience-ready in record time. Her direction is almost musical, establishing a cadence that keeps the weighty, almost “symphonic” script from bogging itself down, and helping the characters hit all the right emotional notes.
Set design by Tim Casey is exquisitely quaint, with just the right amount of surrealism to accent the play’s So-Goth literary style.
Sure, the setting may be dated, but the play’s themes have nine lives and its message still has claws. Paws down, this is as good a civic production of it as you’ll see anywhere, and it’s right in your own backyard.
No doubt about it: this “Cat” landed on all fours.
Parental guidance: the play deals with adult themes, and has explicit language, and is not recommended for audiences younger than 17.
Sierra Classic Theatre’s “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” continues this weekend, and, Thursday through Sunday at the Mammoth Lakes Arts Center. Performances are Thursday – Saturday at 7:30 p.m. nightly; Sunday matinee only show at 4 p.m. Tickets: $20; seniors and students are $15. Call the box office for reservations at 760.934.1900 and visit www.sierraclassictheatre.org.