A review of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” directed by Kurt Beattie and featuring John Aylward as Big Daddy at Seattle’s ACT Theatre.
Don’t worry about discerning the central theme of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
Williams leads you right to it, then rubs your nose in it. “There ain’t nothin’ more powerful than the odor of mendacity,” intones Big Daddy, a self-made Mississippi plantation mogul. His gaudy home reeks of the stench of “dirty lies and liars,” as his favored but alcoholic and embittered son Brick puts it.
The term “mendacity,” the art and state of lying, is heard often in Kurt Beattie’s robust new staging of the lauded 1955 play, which opens the 50th season of ACT Theatre with a bang. (It was also part of ACT’s first season.)
‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’
By Tennessee Williams. Through May 17 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; call for ticket prices (206-292-7676 or acttheatre.org).
Deception is the rotting foundation of the duplicitous, loveless Pollitt clan. Even the brutally frank members — Big Daddy (John Aylward), Brick (Brandon O’Neill)and Brick’s vital, lonely wife, Maggie (Laura Griffith) — lie to themselves while heaping hard truth on others.
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But as in all the best Williams plays, steamy Southern melodrama is only the play’s topsoil. Underneath is rich loam, a primal, unresolvable mix of suppressed carnality, ambivalence, toxic fear and disgust over fraudulent American values.
Griffith’s alluring Maggie prowls her boudoir like a feline in heat, but Brick recoils from her. Haunted by the death of a friend from his youth, he can’t admit that their “pure” bond was homoerotic. (Neither could the first film version of “Cat,” which neutered Brick’s sexual-identity crisis.)
As he turns 65, the dying bull Big Daddy swallows the lie that he’s cancer-free, but still must confront his mortality — and his fraudulent life as a rich hypocrite.
Even if they repeat themselves in windy monologues and sink into sodden funks, these are totems of midcentury American theater. And not instantly, but over three hours in Beattie’s agile staging-in-the-round, they get under your skin.
Frequently interrupting their arias, and Act 2’s powerful truth-letting father-son matchup, are a pair of despised, spying kinfolk.
Brick’s smarmy elder brother Gooper (Charles Leggett), and his phony-sweet wife, Mae (Morgan Rowe), are stock comic villains. He’s plotting an estate takeover. She flaunts their “no-neck monster” offsprings at childless Maggie.
Big Mama (Marianne Owen) also intrudes, fussing, gabbing, oblivious. She disgusts Big Daddy, whose contempt for his graceless wife is cruel and voluble.
Dolled up but dowdy (Melanie Taylor Burgess designed the great 1950s garb), Big Mama is made for mockery. Owen is laughable in the role but also movingly loyal to a man who doesn’t deserve it, and pathetic in her need for affirmation.
Griffith sashays around in revealing lingerie for nearly an hour, and has the glamour (think Natalie Wood) and sensual assurance to bring it off. She articulately defines Maggie’s intelligence and sexual determination in her long opening monologue, but more varied vocal dynamics and chemistry with O’Neill would enhance it.
Aylward demonstrates exactly how to master Williams’ circular streams of dialogue. He snarls Big Daddy’s demands and barks his crude boasts, then patiently, quietly teases out the source of Brick’s misery. Remarkably, Williams folded into this portrait of a crass blowhard some real sympathy and tolerance for sexual “deviance.” Aylward embraces such contradictions.
Brick uses a crutch for his broken ankle, booze and silence to numb his heart. O’Neill conveys, often in stillness and muteness, Brick’s alienation — and the dark side of the psychic battle that tormented Williams.
In an ending revised from the original script, Williams made the possibility of Brick and Maggie getting it together to produce an heir decidedly ambiguous, and Beattie follows suit.
Does it really matter if the couple do the deed? By that point, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is so fertile as explosive melodrama and Freudian X-ray, maybe it doesn’t.