Playwright Tennessee Williams wrote often about the human condition. Cruelty, suffering and yearning for love in alonely world consumed his writing. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” which he wrote in 1955, is no different. The Southern classic fits perfectly as the last show of the Gilbert Theater’s 2017-18 season, punctuating a theatrical journey of wild, caged hearts. Performances of the show run June 1-10.
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” tells the tale of a husband and wife, Brick and Maggie, who are at odds both physically and emotionally. They don’t sleep together. Brick, a copious drinker, is still in shambles over the suicide of his best friend. Maggie is concerned with whether or not Brick’s siblings will inherit Big Daddy’s fortune. Meanwhile, everyone except Big Daddy seems to know he is dying of cancer.
Knee-deep in the sludge of greed, familial discord and lies, the whole clan gathers to pretend and to smile and to “celebrate” Big Daddy’s birthday. Yet as often happens with family, past slights explode to the surface.
In Williams’ original play, he critiques the homophobia and sexism rampant particularly in the South. But these critiques don’t quite make it into the 1958 MGM film version, starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. The film was produced in the height of the Hays Code era, when sexual repression on film was the standard.
According to director James Dean, the Gilbert Theater adapted Williams’ 1974 version of the play, which contains more overt portrayals of the original undertones.
“(Williams’) plays are usually about how difficult communication is between people,” said Dean. “This one is really about this one rich family and their lack of communication in that core, the dysfunction of this family.”
One of Williams’ earlier plays is subtitled “A Prayer for the Wild of Heart That are Kept in Cages.” It is also a good working summary of the Gilbert Theater’s season.
The season opener, “Evil Dead: The Musical,” is a playful reflection of the wild being caged in a dead zombie body. A cage is a cage.
The Gilbert’s follow-up was the classic story of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” George Bailey so embodies the idea of a caged free spirit. He wanted to build things. Go places. Be somebody. But he become strapped in his small town, destined to take over his father’s banking business and live a life of quiet desperation. The ending sees George accepting and becoming almost grateful for his cage.
To paraphrase the candid Williams: you either accept it, kill yourself or stop looking in mirrors.
By adapting David Ives’ play “Venus in Fur,” the Gilbert continued the theme of a trapped wildness aching to be free. Thomas wants to put Vanda in a certain kind of box: submissive to the director’s ideas and ego, demure, not headstrong. Still, Vanda is the one to turn the tables and put Thomas in that very box designed for her.
“Antigone,” on the other hand, shows the wild heart of an activist, a revolutionary, trapped in the cage of simply being born in the wrong time.
With “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” one hopes the Gilbert captures the desperation of Williams’ characters to connect beyond the steel cage of our individual selves. If so, it will be the cherry a top a well-crafted season.
“Every single person can relate to the things going on in this play,” said Dean. “We all have problems within our family units. You might love them and at the same time you just can’t believe they’re saying or doing the things that they do.”
To support the Gilbert and its 25th anniversary season next year, the theater is hosting a fundraiser featuring classical chamber music June 10. Tickets are $30 per person. For more information, visit www.gilberttheater.com.