By James V. Ruocco
Playwright Tennessee Williams was a sexual sensationalist with a strong social conscience and wit whose take on life, most notably, the human condition, was crazily absurd, radical and often tragic.
"When I write, I don't aim to shock people, and I'm surprised when I do. But I don't think that anything that occurs in life should be omitted from art, though the artist should present it in a fashion that is artistic and not ugly. I set out to tell the truth. And, sometimes the truth is shocking."
At his best, Williams wrote and penned stories about characters that were marginalized and defeated; torn and infatuated; bleak and repressed; sexual and struggling; delusional and tyrannical; martyred and misguided; cunning and salacious; hypocritical and vulnerable; truthful and starving.
"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
"The Glass Menagerie."
"A Streetcar Named Desire."
"Sweet Bird of Youth"
"The Night of the Iguana"
"Suddenly Last Summer"
In the oft-revived "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof," which many claim is "the front piece of his artistic expression," Williams creates a tragedy about self-delusion, lust and homophobia, in which the hero, the handsome and strapping Brick, can no more admit to his homosexuality and love for his deceased best buddy Skipper than his father, Big Daddy, can to his cancer, ridiculously labeled by doctors and family members as "a spastic colon."
"One man has one great good true thing in his life. One great good thing which is true! I had a friendship with Skipper. You are naming it dirty!"
"You two had something that had to be kept on ice, yes, incorruptible, yes!"
"If you needed a big daddy, why didn't you come to me? If you needed someone to lean on, why Skipper? Why not me? I'm your father! Why didn't you come to your kinfolk, the people that love you."
As the plot thickens, these and other questions are addressed with epic resolution in Music Theatre of Connecticut's spellbinding revival of "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof," which dissects and spits out the truth with brutal, thrilling diagnosis.
This "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof " unfolds in a whole new light that peels back the layers of Williams dicey, explosive drama with such wild abandon, the experience (or ride) itself is completely revelatory.
The beauty of this production, first and foremost, lies in the more than capable hands of Kevin Connors who recently staged Frank Wildhorn's Gothic pop opera "Jekyll & Hyde" with Whitechapel eeriness, urgency and murderous tessitura at MTC. An obviously meticulously craftsman and auteur, Connors knows exactly what he wants on every dramatic level and is very skillful and adept at getting it, running with it and letting it breathe, sizzle and snap.
Here, one feels the sexual disillusionment between the alcoholic Brick and his wife Maggie who yearns for the sexual passion and intimacy they once enjoyed. One is also subject to the desperation and braying tactics associated with the huge inheritance of Big Daddy's Mississippi estate. Big Daddy's explosive encounter with Brick in the second act regarding his "queer" relationship with Skipper is also rife with sarcasm, anger and edgy, staggering father-son honesty.
Staging this "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof," Connors effectively utilizes the script from the original 1955 Broadway production that starred Barbara Bel Geddes, Ben Gazzara, Burl Ives, Mildred Dunnock, Madeline Sherwood and Pat Hingle. Nothing is censored. Nothing is whitewashed or marginalized. Nothing is glossed over. Instead, Connors allows his cast and audience to bask in the glory of Williams' language, its allure and controversy, its truths and illusions, its heated directness and sting, its idiosyncratic stamps and finally, its textual symbolism. It's all very personalized, marked by rhythmic line deliveries that aptly reflect the playwright's intentions. Things are so beautiful, there are times when you wish there was a "Replay" button you could hit to hear certain passages a second and third time.
With Connors at the helm, the play swims effortlessly from scene to scene and act to act with an airy fluidity that serves the material well. He also knows exactly what buttons to push: easy and understated; dramatic and feverish; shocking and sexual; candid and light-hearted; sweet and simplistic; revealing and suggestive; confrontational and nasty; gnawing and predatory. His choices unfold with illuminating, fulfilling results.
Andrea Lynn Green, as Brick's wife Maggie, is sultry, alluring and every inch the "cat" of the play's title. But her Maggie is not just a pretty face. She's tough. She's desperate. She's manipulative. She's shrewd. She's money hungry. She's a social climber. She's a victim. She's a predator.
No matter. The actress channels Maggie's colorful persona to natural, dazzling, determined effect. She also adapts brilliantly to the natural rhythm and melody of Williams' dialogue and plays it with the conviction and verisimilitude of someone who gets and understands the playwright and her character's fully charged freight of emotions.
Michael Raver who plays Brick shows us his character's many colors. His Brick is a numb and bored alcoholic craving the "click" of release. His Brick is a frustrated man and husband who is disgusted by his wife Maggie's kisses, touches and sexual advances. His Brick is a confused individual fighting the gay attraction he once felt for Skipper, thus, refusing to acknowledge their relationship as something "queer" and "dirty." His Brick is also someone longing for acceptance and love from a father who doesn't quite understand him. It's a dynamic that allows Raver to inhabit Brick with a validity that is both timely and persuasive. His drink dependency is also both slovenly and raw.
There's something wonderfully decadent about Frank Mastrone's egomaniacal portrayal of Big Daddy that fuels his character's flash-bang extremities, brashness, hysteria, vulgarity and snarky outspokenness. It's a showy part, yes. But Smith doesn't go for the obvious or look for the easy way out. Instead, he plays it for real, thus, reveling in the heat, the drama or the comedy of the moment. There are real sparks in Big Daddy's father-son faceoff with Brick that Mastrone projects with crude, slippery relish. The actor also conveys his character's hardness, especially when he reveals his disdain for his devoted wife Big Mama.
"Think of all the lies I got to put up with! Ain't that mendacity? Having to pretend stuff you don't think or feel or have any idea of? Having for instance to act like I care for Big Mama! I haven't been able to stand the sight, sound, or smell of that woman for forty years now, even when I laid her!"
"Cat On a Hot Tin Roof" is a steamy, sexy, compelling drama that observes and celebrates the gusty, admirable writing of celebrated American playwright Tennessee Williams. It is fierce. It is provocative. It is ballsy. It is an unforgettable piece of theater driven by bold, ravishing performances and daring, impassioned direction that brings a ferocious energy to this forever stirring story of sexual repression and desire, splendidly voiced by a master craftsman who broke new ground with truthful, courageous storytelling.
"I don't have an audience in mind when I write. I'm writing mainly for myself. After a long devotion to playwriting, I have a good inner ear. I know pretty well how a thing is going to sound on stage, and how it will play. I write to satisfy this inner ear and its perceptions. That's the audience I write for."
"Cat On a Hot Tin Roof" is being staged at Music Theatre of Connecticut (509 Westport Ave, Norwalk, CT), now through November 18.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 454-3883