Save the drama for ya momma, they say. But what if the drama is with your mom, your dad, your siblings, your partner – everybody? Well, then, you get a Tennessee Williams play. The last show of the Gilbert Theater’s 2017-18 season is Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Emotions and temperatures ran high on the small stage of the Gilbert, along with a warning to the audience
about a broken air conditioning system. Fortunately, the heat works in the play’s favor. You feel like a devil sweating your sins out in a packed Sunday church. And there’s plenty of sin to go around.
One summer day in the South, a rich, dysfunctional family gathers to celebrate a birthday but disintegrates under the weight of their hate. Their lies. Money. Sex. You name it, they fight about it. Who is sleeping with whom? Who is getting the inheritance? What is not being said? Questions swirl until you are stifled and exhausted.
The play opens with a voyeuristic view of our main characters, husband and wife Brick (James Hartley) and Maggie (Nicki Hart). Shadow silhouettes behind white screens entrance us as they
shower and ready themselves for Big Daddy’s birthday. Given the size and limitations of a theater like the Gilbert, it’s always so special and invitational when brilliant flairs of set design like this are executed.
In this opening scene, Brick and Maggie are already arguing. Maggie wants sex. Brick wants silence – and his whisky. But this is merely the façade of their marital problems.
Brick is interrogated incessantly about his drinking problem. Big Mama (Rhonda Brocki) fusses. Maggie alternates between seducing and blackmailing him out of drinking. Meanwhile, Big Daddy insists Brick stops “passing the buck.” You gotta love the tenacity of family sometimes, right?
James Dean (of modern times) as Big Daddy is transfixing. Trained at the Lee Strasberg Institute in Los Angeles, Dean’s acting chops are light years above the mark. The green stage lighting
on him as he contemplates old memories and confronts impending death gives eerie homage to scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”
Overall, though, the production succeeds best at capturing how appearances are never what they seem to be.
Brick and Maggie are a couple so clearly divided, there might as well be a 20-foot concrete wall, complete with batteries, trenches and moat between them. The instinct is to empathize for a spark plug like Maggie, settling for a husband who merely tolerates her presence. One gets the same feeling for Big Mama, who is berated by the misogynistic and cruel Big Daddy.
But there’s sympathy to be had for Brick, too. He struggles with the confusion and homophobia that surrounds his friendship with the late Skipper.
A claustrophobic time bomb of a tale, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” articulates how difficult it is to communicate, even with family, about our most deeply personal fears and issues. The play could be
summed up entirely when Maggie says, “Lean on me,” and Brick replies, “I don’t want to lean on you. I want my crutch.”
We can try to talk it out, but sometimes people aren’t ready to dissect and understand and fit each missing piece with another corresponding piece. They’d rather be a cat on a hot tin roof: do what is easy and avoid the conversation altogether.
Some of the other standout performances of the night are from side characters like Mae (Staci Graybill) and the Reverend (Larry Carlisle). They manage to serve their characters while also alleviating enormous tension with understated hilarity.
The Gilbert is closing out a season fraught with the caged hearts of those aching to be free. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is tense punctuation mark to that end. Shows will run until June 10. For tickets and information, visit www.gilberttheater.com.