Flat Rock Playhouse current production, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, proved to be a emotionally powerful staging of the Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It rises above the obvious story of a sexually-dominate heroine to truly focus on the bigger issue, the conflict between the necessary truth and the consoling lie.
This comes out with complete clarity in Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s richly detailed production. From the start of the show, James W. Johnsons’ design of an aging Mississippi mansion lets the audience know right away that this is a place where people are stripped of their illusions. Added by Bryan Delaney’s outstanding sound and Discoll Otto’s lighting designs, the production looks and sounds appropriately desperate and bleak.
The story of a wealthy plantation family in Mississippi, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof deals with the imminent death of family patriarch, Big Daddy. Gathered to celebrate Big Daddy’s 65th birthday, Williams’ depiction of a family vying for a dying father’s inheritance and underlying acceptance resonates as much today as it did when it debut on Broadway in 1955.
J. Kenneth Campbell presents an astonishing complex Big Daddy. Never have I seen a more commanding, yet vulnerable, portrayal. More than just an angry, crude Mississippi redneck, he moves you by his love for Brick and his tortured agony as cancer ravages his body.
The biggest surprise in this production was Barbara Bradshaw’s Big Mama. Bradshaw’s performance is so strongly deluded that she takes Big Mama from a supporting character to a stand-out in the show. She embodies the consoling lie and the power of denial.
Robert Eli portrayal of Brick acutely brings out Brick’s tortured guilt and the incapacitating effect of alcoholism. However, his performance literally lacked the stillness it needed. His constant hoping due to his broken leg distracts from his crippled emotions.
Adria Vitlar seductively and provocatively commands the stage, conveying Maggie’s desperate need for affection. In fairness to Vitlar, this is one of the hardest female roles in American theatre, and today can border a parody of female sexuality. Occasionally, Vitlar approached that line, but she keeps the audience transfixed.
Preston Dyar quietly embodied the overlooked elder brother Gooper, until his explosive outpouring of resentment in the final act, with just the right hint of self-righteousness. Scott Treadway as Reverend Tooker gave the audience a few needed moments of lightness. However, Erin Maguire’s choice to make Mae more comedic than passive-aggressive seemed out of place and brought too much Lucille Ball to this dramatic production.
But the true test of Dodge’s direction and the show’s visceral power came during intermission and after the show. The audience around me was literally buzzing with discussion of the show’s plot and characters. As audience members disputed Brick’s sexuality and Maggie’s despair, I knew Dodge had struck a powerful chord.
The only place where Cat on a Hot Tin Roof completely missed the mark was in choosing not to cast Gooper and Mae’s children. Although clever to use voice-overs in place of actual child actors, the opportunity for characters’ interactions with the children overlooks the important statement it makes about the show’s grotesque image of family life.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is directed by Tony Award nominated Marcia Milgrom Dodge and runs until November 18. For tickets and information, visit the Flat Rock Playhouse’s web site.