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“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” Review (Pacifica Spindrift Players)

January 25, 2012

Theater Review:
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Pacifica Spindrift Players
Opening Night 1/6/12

One of the many rewards of going to small theater productions (Pacifica’s Spindrift theater seats 98) is chatting with the cast and crew in the lobby after the show. There Elisa Valentine (Maggie in the current run of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) told me that is one role every actress wants to play: she can be by turns shrewd, seductive, a sweetheart, a vamp, and of course, catty to the hilt. All in the first act, where Valentine’s Maggie owns the stage. She shares it with a sullen, almost absent husband (Collin Wenzell as Brick), a washed-up sportscaster with too much on his mind that he tries to drown with alcohol.

He doesn’t say much; just lies on the sofa seeming asleep, or gets up to pour himself another drink while Maggie in what amounts to an extended soliloquy alternately berates, cajoles, flatters, and attempts to seduce him. Nothing doing, for this scene. Brick’s not having any of it. “How long does this have to go on? . . Go on, take a lover. You know you want to.” Outside their bedroom window, others in the household of this decaying southern mansion are listening in. We in the audience are too. The secrets unfold themselves slowly.

Partly it’s the masterful script, but more the details of the production that create this world. The very clever set design by Henry Sellenthin gives us on one stage a bedroom, parlor, a hallway outside a door, a balcony, and a star-filled night sky (by lighting designer Carson Duper) just outside the French doors. There’s more air and frame than wall and scrim; bars on the railing, the transom, the brass bedstead all give the subtlest hint of how these lives are contained in cages. The characters don’t see them, but we do.

And oh, those characters! Williams gave them words to say, but fine acting by the entire cast breathes life into them. In the second act Wenzell’s lethargic Brick catches fire, slowly, as his overbearing, sonofabitch father (John Musgrave as Big Daddy) confronts him over his constant drunkenness. This son’s a disgrace, the other one’s a disappointment, and he has no trouble expressing himself about it. Brick takes it all in, another reason to fail.

Big Daddy’s slowly dying although he doesn’t know it. He’s heartbroken. He won’t let anyone see it, but we can hear it by the unconscious catch in his voice when he says Brick’s name. The second act builds slowly, gracefully under Gary Pugh-Newman’s patient direction. One by one the layers that father and son had both so carefully protected themselves with are peeled away and we see depths in each of them that they cannot see for themselves. The second act belongs to them. At odd moments each reveals to the other–if not to himself–aspects kept concealed their entire lives together. In a slow ballet they move toward each other, then pull away.

The play was written in 1955. Brick’s implied homosexuality–Big Daddy says his son’s too-close friendship with another young man was “not exactly normal”–and the importance of keeping it a secret, was a big deal then. But in this play, nothing is quite what it seems. Yes, Brick and Skipper were very, very close, but “It was pure and true, and that’s not normal.” A deep, deep friendship, gone to ruin over fear of what others might have said. Brick has crippled himself with alcohol over this, and will not hear his father’s kind words, or recognize his father’s love. But we do.

Supporting actors enter and depart, preparing the way for the fine ensemble work of the third act, when every one of them gets to take center stage for a time, and makes good use of it. Characters who previously had been more walk-ons burst into life, each with his own heartache, fear, intrigue, betrayal. Big Mama (Joan Pugh-Newman) finally learns the truth about her husband–he’s dying, this man who has held her in such contempt for forty years, and she won’t hear a word of any of it. By the final curtain, we’ve seen them all, and recognized ourselves in them.

This remarkable production by Pacifica Spindrift Players is replete with subtleties of lighting, set design, acting, and direction of this remarkable production that do not lend them selves to simple description. You really must go see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to see all of what I mean.

Through January 29. 2012

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