Purr Relations

Muddy Waters takes the bite out of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Oct 10, 2007 at 4:00 am
This year Muddy Waters Theatre Company is devoting its season to three plays by Tennessee Williams. But the opening offering, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, more resembles Eugene O'Neill, because this Cat feels like a long day's journey into night. With this difference: Long Day's Journey is single-minded in its unsparing portrait of O'Neill's tortured family. By contrast, Williams never did know what Cat was about, which is why he continued to rewrite it after the original Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway production.

But a director is supposed to cut through a playwright's evasions. Long before rehearsals begin, a director must decide why the play is being staged. What is its theme? What is its spine? Director Cameron Ulrich's production does not answer either of these questions. This staging has no point of view, no real reason to exist. It reveals nothing about the deep-rooted deceptions that are suffocating the dysfunctional Pollitt family, who cohabit 28,000 acres of the richest soil in the Mississippi Delta.

Lies buzz through the airy plantation manse like river gnats. The family has been lying to patriarch Big Daddy Pollitt about his lingering illness. His alcoholic son Brick may or may not be lying to himself about his sexual proclivities. The childless Maggie lies about an impending pregnancy. Williams once said that Cat asks this question: "When your time comes to die, do you want to die in a hot-bed of lies or on a cold stone of truth?" That question is not asked here. The evening lumbers along from act to act, relying on the ferocity and lyricism of Williams' prose to keep the action buoyant but adding no fresh insights of its own.

Cat can be a confusing play. For starters, the title would have us believe that the story is focused on Brick's frustrated tigress-wife Margaret, a premise that is supported by the fact that Act One is a virtual monologue for Maggie the Cat. But then Maggie's presence becomes much diminished in the final two acts. More often that not, Big Daddy makes his belated entrance in Act Two, turns on the profane fireworks and neatly puts Cat into his pocket. That transfusion of theatricality does not occur here, because both roles are miscast and misplayed.

Apart from the fact that there is nothing feline about Patty Ulrich's Maggie — no purring, no clawing, no cattiness — one of the direst problems (which her director-husband should have solved) is that too often we can't hear her. The actress seems to think she's acting in a film rather than on the stage. Big Daddy's problem is equally unfortunate. The actor who fills those shoes does not have to be physically large, but he must command the stage. He must be able to instill fear. Jan Swank's patriarch lacks authority and menace. Swank doesn't stride into a room; he ambles. He's too nice. (Imagine watching Grandpa Walton, Will Geer, play Big Daddy.)

Lacking both a Maggie and a Big Daddy, it remains for Brick to fill the vacuum. Joel Lewis at least creates a character with an arc. He begins by depicting a smoldering, seething son; in Act Two Brick's anger devolves into self-contempt, which by play's end collapses into despair. If nothing else, this production reminds us that Cat is fundamentally about Brick, the sole character who almost never leaves the stage. But owing to the lack of direction, there is no pace or build. When late in the second act we finally hear Brick's revelations about the betrayal of his friendship with Skipper, the confession feels more like a tacked-on appendage than a dramatic climax.

Among the supporting players, Myron Freedman finds an unctuous malevolence in Brick's brother Gooper, who is usually played as merely hapless. Kim Furlow is especially effective as Gooper's clutching wife. Donna Weinsting's Big Mama is a persuasive family victim, but Weinsting has not been asked to reveal Big Mama's dark underside. Alas, none of these actors has been asked to do much of anything. So we get a Cat that, like the unseen Skipper, "stumbles and fumbles" through its long journey into night, only to end up telling us nothing at all.