It’s a rich, lush drama, as over-ripe and messy as a juicy Georgia peach. Tennessee Williams won the Pulitzer Prize with this block-buster, and Danville’s Role Players Ensemble gives it the full Broadway treatment in the first play of their 2014-15 season.
Having seen the original show (and the hit movie made a few years later with Liz Taylor, Paul Newman, and Burl Ives) I can heartily recommend this production as more vibrant and visceral. Not only is the cast pitch perfect in appearance and acting chops, but the experience of being up close and personal in a small theater brings viewers into the action, rather than just seeing it as spectators.
The packed opening-night audience was captivated and impressed by the fast-paced verbal exchanges from the opening lines, to the stunning final curtain, and rewarded the ensemble with a thunderous standing ovation, this reviewer among them.
Set in an opulent Mississippi plantation house, the plot seems infused with the steamy heat of the Delta, raising temperatures and tensions to unbearable levels. The family members supposedly gathered to celebrate the 65th birthday of patriarch Big Daddy are gradually revealed as scorpions in a bottle, fighting each other for power and supremacy. With Big Daddy dying of cancer, his having no will looms as the subject of all the desperate maneuvering by his prospective heirs.
Older son Gooper is smugly portrayed by Robert Sholty as a crafty corporate lawyer, relentlessly pursuing a “provisional” power of attorney for the family’s huge estate. What he most desires but can never win is the love of his parents, always partial to charming younger brother Brick, the charismatic former star athlete. In contrast, Gooper’s success has been stolidly worldly, with a legal partnership, society wife, and 5 ½ children to carry on the family line. But he feels he has been treated “like I was barely good enough to spit on, and sometimes not even good enough for that.”
His wife Mae is brought to detestable life by newcomer Jessica Lea Risco, a genius at catty digs at her childless sister-in-law, and overwhelmingly syrupy sweetness to her in-laws that makes listeners on and off the stage want to gag. It’s a plum role,and she makes the most of it, orchestrating well-rehearsed tributes to Big Daddy by her obnoxious brats and fawning over him herself. Though he admits she’s a “good breeder," flaunting her big pregnant belly, he admits he hates “that bitch Mae” and her 5 “same monkeys."
A larger-than-life Southern cracker, Big Daddy quit school as a child, but worked his way up to being hugely rich and owning “28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the Valley Nile," but he is still rude and crude as a Red Neck, socially accepted only for his wealth. Dutifully attending a church he despises, joining clubs he finds meaningless, and married for 40 years to a woman he can’t stand (“even when I laid her, regular as a piston…”) he has lived in dread of a death sentence from cancer. Told that the clinic gave him a clean bill of health (a temporary birthday lie), he feels free to re-assert his authority, speak his mind, and tell “inconvenient truths” previously inhibited by social convention.
Declaring that he has a new lease on life, he intends to live for carnal pleasures, use the coarse language natural to him, and ignore his wife’s pleas for civility. He begs Brick to stop drinking and throwing his life away, probing for the reason why Brick became an alcoholic when his best friend Skipper died. After years of meaningless conversations together, the emotional intensity of this father-son exchange is revealing, riveting, and heart-breaking.
Veteran actor Randy Anger is powerfully convincing as a man of huge appetites who has regained his vital force but has also come to see the truth of life. Although unsophisticated, he speaks eloquently of his horror at the poverty of the starving children in Morocco and Spain, where the priests are “so fat and so many of them." Not a dumb insensitive man after all. He describes the Europe he saw on Cook’s Tour as “a great big auction – a big fire-sale, with his wife buying everything in sight.”
Waxing unnaturally philosophical, he observes that dumb animals have an advantage over men; they have no foreknowledge of mortality. But “the human animal is a beast that dies, and if he’s got money, he buys and buys," with “the crazy hope that one of his purchases will be life everlasting! Which it can never be…” Finally he reveals the terrible dilemma that prevented him from writing a will. How could he leave his estate to Gooper’s family, which he hates, or to his favorite boy Brick, “subsidizing a goddam fool on the bottle, worthless behavior, rot, corruption…”
Unbelievably, Brick claims no interest in the estate, and finally admits that he drinks out of disgust at the mendacity of the world. He rails at the suspicion, even from his own family, that he had a shameful relationship with Skipper, when it was really “pure friendship, the one great good true thing in my life.” He believes that his wife Maggie’s interference between them led to Skipper’s untimely death, the reason he now abhors the idea of making love to her ever again.
Maggie is the frustrated “cat on a hot tin roof” of the play’s title, still madly in love with Brick, and hoping that bearing his child would ensure their inheritance. She admits she’s no good, but at least she’s honest, defiantly declaring, “Born poor, raised poor, expect to die poor unless I manage to get us something out of what Big Daddy leaves when he dies.”
Megan Trout is a powerhouse as Maggie, alternately trying to charm, seduce, straight-talk and even threaten Brick out of his alcoholic haze. Sultry, sexy, coarse, passionate, chatty, defiant, self-abasing and mean by turns, she is basically a pitiful creature terrified at what her life will become without love or money. Her real-life partner Joshua Schell as Brick manages to be the quiet pivot of the first act, glowering out of half-glazed eyes as he tries to ignore or fend off Maggie’s endless tirades. Watching him is a sobering experience of passive aggression, while she is a volcanic outpouring of emotion. Together their scenes have a dynamic that is unique, a superb pairing of consummate professionals.
Brick’s scenes with Big Daddy begins in the same way – the sullen stare, slightly unfocussed eyes, and off-hand random replies. While the long confrontation with Maggie ends in her screaming anger (“I’m not living with you. We occupy the same cage.”), Big Daddy actually succeeds in touching something in his son that releases a painful torrent of truth. Brick is finally forced to face his own role in Skipper’s death, a devastating confrontation with his own failing.
Challenged by his father to “man up” to that truth, Brick is goaded to reveal Big Daddy’s terminal cancer, challenging him to face his own truth. A suddenly-deflated old man curses at the “lying sons of bitches” around him, his howls of impotent rage resounding to end Act II.
The third act is a fierce free-for-all, as the warring parties bare their fangs and claws, while the doctor and the preacher try their ineffective best to calm things down. Highlighting this act is the powerful image of Big Mamma, who has suffered a humiliating tongue-lashing from Big Daddy. Award-winning actress Beth Chastain credibly embodies the terrible hurt of a woman whose façade of a “good marriage” has been shattered by her husband’s vicious verbal attack.
She is even more disturbed by Gooper’s plans to assume “provisional trusteeship” of the estate, and Brick’s deliberate avoidance of her affection. Learning the truth of Big Daddy’s cancer, she is wildly distraught with grief, denial, and a recognition that her own life is ending as well. Her angry outbursts coincide eerily with the raging thunderstorm outside, to great dramatic effect.
Like her husband, she becomes the philosophical voice of the playwright as she laments tragically, “Time goes by so fast. Nothin’ can out-run it. Death comes too early –almost before you’re half acquainted with life…” Desperately she pleads with her estranged family, “We just got to love each other an’ stay together, all of us, just as close as we can …”, but it’s obviously a hopeless appeal. Gooper’s legal strategies will surely win the inheritance unless Maggie can save the day with a Hail Mary play.
I urge readers to experience this riveting performance through to its shocking final scene, and enjoy the thrill of a Broadway-worthy evening of superb theater. Award-winning Director George Maguire has finely-crafted another memorable production after last season’s great “Anna Christie," and well deserved his audience ovation.
The show will play through September 20th at Danville’s Village Theater, with tickets available at 925-314-3400 (week-days) or www.RolePlayersEnsemble.com