by Betsy Labiner
Roadrunner Theatre Company’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Mark Klugheit, is a seething, claustrophobic production of Tennessee Williams’ 1955 play that highlights the complex and even cruel relationships that are a hallmark of Williams’ work. The action of the play unfolds over the course of one evening at what is ostensibly a birthday celebration for Big Daddy Pollitt, though the truth is that the celebration is a flimsy cover for a vicious competition regarding who will gain control of the estate in the event of Big Daddy’s impending demise.
Sara Jackson and Robert Anthony Peters play Maggie and Brick; Brick is Big Daddy’s younger and obviously favored child, and Maggie “the Cat” is Brick’s wife. Peters, as Brick, is given little to do in the opening act as he pours and consumes drink after drink in search of the “click” in his brain that signals he’s reached a state of intoxicated peace. He moves mainly between the bar cart and bed, while Jackson’s Maggie enters, exits, pulls clothing on and off, and talks at, over, and around Brick. Jackson’s performance was notable in particular for her navigation of Maggie’s hairpin emotional turns, especially in moments when her façade of confidence gives way to vulnerability or fear, which in turn
morphs into anger.
The unhappy Maggie and Brick contrast sharply with the self-satisfied elder brother Gooper and his wife Mae, played by Andrew Gray and Amy Scully. Gooper and May’s fecundity is constantly reiterated – though whether with pride or derision depends on who is discussing it. Big Mama, played by Cynthia Jeffery, makes no secret of the fact that she views Brick and Maggie’s childlessness as a failing, though the play eventually reveals unexpected biases on her part as well. Jeffery imbues Big Mama with wrenching instability as she reacts to the rapidly shifting circumstances, though she also exhibits a steely fierceness at critical junctures.
In the midst of the family’s dysfunction, Roger Owen dominates the second act as Big Daddy. Owen’s booming voice and intense physical presence command attention from both his onstage family and the audience, as he pivots from joviality to furious threats in the space of a breath. None of the male characters have any respect for women, and it’s easy to see how Big Daddy’s attitude and ideologies were transferred to his sons. Big Daddy seems only to consider women in their capacity for sex and reproduction, and his fury at what he perceives as Big Mama’s attempts to usurp his power leads to moments of chilling callousness.
While the misogyny of Big Daddy gives audiences food for thought in terms of patriarchal power structures, the tolerance he avows in regard to his son’s suspected sexuality encourages the audience to consider the weight of societal as well as internalized homophobia. Owen and Peters create a deeply charged atmosphere as they respectively try to force or retreat from communicating honestly.
The cast play well off each other, particularly Jackson and Scully. Maggie and Mae are constantly sizing each other up, looking for weak spots through which they can take catty swipes at one another. Taylor Rascher, pulling double duty as both Reverend Tooker and Doctor Baugh, acts as something of a barometer, uncomfortably adjacent to the incipient explosions between family members.
The small stage and relatively minimal set work well for this play, as it literalizes the way the characters are unable to extricate themselves from the familial morass of deceit, resentment, and dependency. The characters circle one another, jockeying for position, invading each other’s space, and attempting and failing to remove themselves from the others’ reach. The actors’ body language underscores the simmering tensions, particularly in moments when Big Daddy looms over his wife and sons, or when Maggie and Mae position themselves to signal their sexual or reproductive power. Bodies in general hold a great deal of significance in the play: healthy versus ill, young versus old, fruitful versus barren, living versus dying. The focus on bodies within the play emphasizes the respective links between athleticism and masculinity and fertility and femininity, prompting the audience to evaluate the casual ableism that continues to resonate within society. It’s another interesting lens through which to consider the power structures of the play, and whether or not we as an audience are still engaging in those modes of thinking.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a slice of family drama that stands both as a product of its time and as a reminder that perhaps the issues and dynamics of the 1950s continue to be more present today than we might care to admit.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs January 11th through February 3rd at Roadrunner Theatre (8892 East Tanque Verde), though the shows on January 24th through 27th are at The Temple of Music and Art Cabaret (330 South Scott). Tickets may be purchased online at roadrunnertheatrecompany.org or by phone at 520-207-2491.