Hold onto summer heat and humid emotions just a little while longer with Baltimore Center Stage’s juicy production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
The lies we tell ourselves so we can sleep and the lies keeping us awake and dreamless are the focus of Tennessee Williams’ 1955 play, where wills of iron clash with the wispy tendrils of a family legacy built on deceit, mistrust and out-and-out hatred laced with crazy love.
A late summer in 1954 is the setting for Cat, at the lush and prosperous plantation owned by the Pollitt family, a 25,000 acre estate in the Mississippi delta. The clan is gathered for the 65th birthday of Big Daddy (David Schramm), the titular head of all he can survey from the plantation house’s wrap-around porch and gallery.
Scenic designer Adam Koch and lighting designer John Ambrosone have fashioned a sumptuous plantation home like something out of Southern Living magazine—rose-gold light splashes over a master suite in pale, beachy shades with plump divans and ottomans and multiple French doors leading out onto the porch where palmetto plants and other greenery hint at the land’s fertility.
Things are not so fecund inside the bedroom, as favored son Brick (Andrew Pastides) nurses a broken ankle injured while jumping hurdles at the high school track at 3 am while drunk as a skunk. A former star athlete, Brick’s special talent these days is bending his elbow to pour more bourbon and mooning over the death of his best friend, some might say friend in the “love that dare not speak its name” sense, Skipper.
Or “Skipp-ah” as his restless wife Maggie (Stephanie Gibson) says, honeying each letter of the adored’s name. She has, like my Mama would say, an itch to scratch. Blonde and maintaining a figure that seems poured into white silk slips and dresses the color of moonlight, Maggie is an equal in physical beauty to Brick.
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But where he’s like a statue of the Grecian ideal, still and indifferent, Maggie is warm and alive. Prowling their suite like a caged big cat, Maggie is not giving up on her plans, her ambitions, and her hot-blooded love for her husband, a man so cold and unfeeling (except on the topic of Skipper) that his name is witlessly apt.
Maggie wants what she wants—and that’s a child, which would secure the couple’s place as inheritors of Big Daddy’s fortune instead of greedy elder son Gooper (Rod Brogan) and his scheming wife, the baby factory Mae (Alexis Hyatt). The only flaw in the plan is that Brick can barely stand the sight of Maggie, much less touch her. And the reason for that is all tied up with Skipper too, but in ways you might not expect.
True to Williams’ genius, Cat is a stew of family dysfunction, spying and prying, secrets and lies, grudges and decades-long intolerance. There’s a whole passel of people going through their whole lives pretending to like someone they hate or be someone they’re not and the strain is about to make them burst wide open.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
closes October 14, 2018
Details and tickets
Which they do, in spectacular Williams-fashion, with brutal honesty, humor and great style.
Cat is such a lush Southern gothic tragedy, almost a melodrama, that you find yourself laughing at the god-awful things that tumble out of the characters’ mouths (secretly wish you had the guts to be so luridly crass), just as much as you gasp at their beastly behavior.
Judith Ivey (yes, that Judith Ivey, of stage and screen fame) directs Cat as if the Pollitt plantation is a private zoo, populated by the pacing and preening Maggie the cat, Big Daddy and Brick doing crude, goatish rutting motions when talking about sex, Big Mama (Charlotte Booker) fluttering and perching on her roost like a plump, exotic bird, while Gooper and Mae run big-eyed and skittish through the room like deer in the headlights. Even their kids (Jack St. Pierre, Leonardo Manni and Nina Brothers), tear through the place like a pack of wild animals.
The Pollitt family may be feral, but they are still caught in gilded cages—some of them by their own making. They are trapped by their money, trapped by their manners and deeply-held societal expectations of what it is to be a man, a wife, a dutiful son. And while Cat may seem like a fireworks display of hate, the characters are also trapped by love.
For all the bile, simmering resentment and rancor these people toss out like after-dinner mints, you still get the feeling there is love—messy, confounding and crazy—buried beneath the hatred keeping them alive and making them feel alive.
Sure, Cat is a catty hate story, but it is also a love story of sorts. In Stephanie Gibson’s assured, sultry performance, on one hand you see her as a schemer and seductress, but on the other hand you also see Maggie’s desperate desire to reach her husband—to amuse him, provoke him, care for him, love him.
For most of the play, Andrew Pastides’ Brick fends off Maggie’s attention, staying private and closed off. In the staggering showdown between Big Daddy and Brick, he roars to life, frantically explaining the love and disgust he feels for Skipper, what he insists was “a pure and true thing.”
In a way, Cat is about the dead and alive—Brick, nearly gone already, either through drink or grief; Gooper and Mae caught in some half-life or limbo while they wait to seize the family fortune. And then there’s Maggie, so full of life that men she encounters in public “eat me up with their eyes,” but starving for her husband’s affection.
But the two unextinguished life forces in Center Stage’s production are David Schramm’s Big Daddy and Charlotte Booker’s Big Mama. They may be old, sick, and as they disparage, fat, but nobody’s putting them in the corner anytime soon. Booker’s a lace-buttressed battleship, bossy and sweet and while her mannerisms may seem a little foolish, Big Mama’s nobody’s fool.
And her twin in stubbornness and sheer will is Schramm’s Big Daddy, who with his appetites and earthiness resembles Falstaff with a side of grits. His Big Daddy is larger-than-life, with almost epic toughness and ruthless honesty on the outside, but his insides are larded with lies.
So boldly do Schramm and Booker embody Big Daddy and Big Mama that they steal the play away from the younger folks, particularly Maggie and Brick, whose unhappy histrionics pale in comparison to heat of the fire from their towering elders.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams . Director: Judith Ivey. Featuring: Charlotte Booker, Rod Brogan, Nina Brothers, Paul DeBoy, Stephanie Gibson, Alexis Hyatt, Jim Ireland, Leonardo Manni, Cynthia Miller, Andrew Pastides, David Schramm, Jack St. Pierre. Scenic Designer: Adam Koch. Costume Designer: Joseph G. Aulisi. Lighting Designer: John Ambrosone. Sound Designer: Victoria Deiorio. Composer: Kendall Simpson. Rick Sordelet: Fight Director. Dramaturg: Gavin Witt. Stage Manager: Danielle Teague-Daniels. Produced by Baltimore Center Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.