Emotions run hot in this 'Cat' Review: Two performances undercut strength of Arena Stage's production of Tennessee Williams' classic.

September 23, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

In her production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," director Molly Smith has attempted to adhere to Tennessee Williams' intentions, staging his rarely produced original ending. It's a bold and admirable effort with many illuminating moments.

The production marks Smith's debut as artistic director of Washington's Arena Stage, and for the most part, this is a "Cat" that purrs.

But while the playwright's intent may be clearer -- in that the characters seem more consistent and unbending -- two disappointing lead performances mute the overall effect.

The chief difference between Williams' original ending and the softer one staged by Elia Kazan for the play's 1955 Broadway premiere is that, on Broadway, the character of Big Daddy returned near the end, creating a greater sense of acceptance and reconciliation. At Arena, Dion Anderson plays Big Daddy as such a cruel patriarch, he makes it easy to believe that Williams would not have wanted any empathy or forgiveness for the man.

Anderson's Big Daddy is a paterfamilias who looks at his own grandchildren with such disgust that, when he flings one of them away from him by the collar, you half expect him to toss the boy out a window. Yet Anderson's delivery in Arena's vast, in-the-round Fichandler Theater is often muffled and almost unintelligible. His anger and grumbling come through, but not all of Williams' words.

The other performance that undercuts the production's impact is that of Megan Gallagher as Big Daddy's frustrated daughter-in-law, Maggie. Nicknamed "the cat" for her tenacity and determination, Maggie represents what George Bernard Shaw called "the life force." She is sexuality incarnate. Gallagher looks the part, but she never fully conveys Maggie's desperation or her unquenchable lust -- and love -- for her husband, Brick.

The problem is not Peter Hermann's Brick, a deeply repressed homosexual whose indifference to his wife at times verges on disdain. Hermann's Brick is Big Daddy's son in all but one respect. Where Big Daddy has always been fueled by ambition, power and raw ego, Brick has succumbed to the flip side of

those characteristics and given in to defeatism and self-loathing.

There are other revelatory aspects to the production as well. As Big Mama, Rosemary Knower, who played the same part in Everyman Theatre's fine production at the end of last season, has become as crude and coarse as her husband. She walks like the football player her son Brick once was, and when she sits down, she spreads her legs, eradicating any possible misconceptions that she's a lady.

Her crass portrayal, though not without depth, is one example of the way the production unearths the underlying humor in a play that, at times, takes on the intensity of Greek tragedy. In turn, the classical Greek feeling is reinforced by designer Pavel Dobrusky's majestic, Southern manor-house setting, in which Maggie and Brick's bedroom is presented as a raised platform atop the house's white-curtained, Greek-pillared first floor.

And there is humor in the set as well, reflected at various times, when people on the first floor -- such as Big Daddy's five despised "no-neck monster" grandchildren -- pop into the bedroom through glass brick-covered trap doors.

Smith occasionally overstates the set's symbolism, however. For instance, for about a third of the production, Big Daddy's 65th birthday cake is situated on a pedestal, smack-dab in the middle of the set -- a silent but ironic commentary on Big Daddy's nonexistent future (he has been diagnosed with inoperable cancer). In case this visual metaphor isn't overt enough, the cake is then replaced with a doctor's bag, containing morphine and a hypodermic needle.

But such heavy-handedness can almost be excused by the welcome and subtle touch Smith adds to the play's final scene. )) Instead of highlighting Maggie's triumph, the director leaves us with a note of ambiguity.

Although Maggie and Brick are physically closer on stage than they were in their opening scene, and he seems more accepting of her, they are still far from side by side. Brick is at the liquor cabinet; Maggie is on the bed. The distance between them has lessened, but not disappeared -- a credible outcome that seems in keeping with Williams' comments about the play.

Brick's "moral paralysis," Williams wrote, was a "root thing in his tragedy." In Smith's interpretation, Brick winds up somewhat shaken, but his paralysis is hardly uprooted. It is one of the truest moments in a production that aims -- and often appears to succeed -- at uncovering Williams' truth.

'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. S.W., Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; selected matinees at 2: 30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays and noon Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Through Oct. 18

Tickets: $24-$45

Call: 202-488-3300

Pub Date: 9/23/98

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