This past Friday, I attended opening night of Austin Shakespeare’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Long Center’s Rollins Theater. Let me tell you, that Tennessee Williams don’t mess around. No punches are pulled in this agonizing family drama set in the 1950s in the rural South.
If you’ve only seen the movie with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman, you’d be as shocked as I at some of Williams’ dialogue. As is pointed out in this production’s program, it was sanitized for movie audiences.
The real deal, as seen on Friday, was rife with cursing and discussions of sex in both the younger generations and old. But beyond the shock value, what got to me was how Williams digs under the surface of people’s lives and pulls out their deepest fears and forces them to confront them. If Cat is about anything, it’s about bringing everybody’s secret — sometimes shameful — desires out into the light. In other words, airing everyone’s dirty laundry in front of their relations and forcing them to own it.
The heart of the play are the characters Maggie (the eponymous Cat), played by Gwendolyn Kelso, and her husband Brick, played by Zac Thomas. The characters, and therefore the performances, couldn’t be more different: Maggie is loud, demonstrative, and speaks every thought that’s in her head. Williams has drawn the character to be over the top, and Kelso plays it to melodramatic perfection with a drawling Southern accent. On the other hand, Brick is meant to taciturn, withdrawn, and refuses to say what he’s thinking. With few words and gestures, Thomas portrays the character’s inner turmoil. And as Brick is continually harassed not only by Maggie, but also his father (or Big Daddy, played by Ev Lunning, Jr.), the play builds to a painful climax as Brick finally explodes.
Thankfully, the play is lightened periodically by the sheer comic value of the outrageous things people say — especially Big Daddy. After a lifetime of playing the noble husband, receiving some good news affords him an opportunity to cut loose. Lunning shows him to be delightfully determined to live it up, reveling in shocking his family as he voices his ignoble plans.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is not a joyful story, but it is a masterful look at what we all carry around with us, hiding from the world behind happy smiles and good-natured laughter. The production continues at The Long Center through December 2.