Not long after the 1955 play “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” earned renowned 20th Century American playwright Tennessee Williams his second Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics Circle Award, he published an essay in Playbill magazine about the playwright’s relationship to the director of his plays.
“There are very few directors who are imaginative and yet also willing to forego the willful imposition of their own ideas on a play. … It is all but impossibly hard for any artist to devote his gifts to the mere interpretation of the gifts of another,” he said.
Randy Wolfe of What a Do Theatre, however, is one of those rare imaginative directors who absolutely devotes his gifts to bringing Williams’ work to glorious fruition.
Last year, What a Do’s production of “Streetcar Named Desire” under Wolfe’s direction won a coveted Wilde Award for best play among all professional theatre productions in the state. With “Cat” he shows, once again, his terrific command of Williams’ brilliant texts, and brings it to life in practically all its fullness as one can imagine the playwright intended.
This play’s “naked study of life,” as Williams described it, focuses on a climactic moment for three generations of a white plantation-owning family in the American South. It’s the 65th birthday of the patriarch, Big Daddy, and he’s just “returned from the other side of the moon, death’s country.”
His favored son Brick’s indifference and alcoholism is coming to the point of a Southern-style intervention. Brick’s catty debutante wife Maggie is “consumed with envy an’ eaten up with longing” given her husband’s unwillingness to love her physically (or otherwise) and give her children, thus jeopardizing their inheritance and her continuing upward mobility from an impoverished childhood.
Crucial truths are revealed despite the forces at work on and amid this tightly framed family dynamic, not the least of which are the betrayals involved in an appropriately ambiguous love triangle.
It’s a damn-near perfect script, poetic drama at its most delicious crafted precisely, with musical language, complex dynamic characters, excellent pacing, and exceptional detail to, well, everything. It’s a scathing critique of heteronormativity and the tyranny of the child long before its time, and it also beautifully stands up to the test of time. Williams wrote one of the richest, most complex female characters of the 20th century in Maggie, and yet the script is shot through with misogyny. The paradoxes are wonderful and rich; it’s life played out on stage magnificently.
Williams described “Cat” as having “the tightest structure of anything I have ever done,” and it exemplifies classical unity with its continuous action in a single location happening essentially in real time.
Scenic and Lighting Designer Samantha Snow exactingly creates that single location, a cage of sorts, in accordance with Williams’ heavy-handed notes for the designer in the script, evoking a particular time and place that also isn’t entirely locked in by time. The decor of this bedroom in a plantation home in the Mississippi Delta is “Victorian with a touch of the Far East.”
Complete with fabrics covered in big floral patterns as well as large oriental rugs, the giant four-poster brass bed (a powerful symbol), raised on a platform centerstage is framed by two sets of french doors that lead out to “an upstairs gallery” where an expanse of sky and a luminous moon dwell, as well as a sitting area with a console/liquor cabinet down stage left, and a vanity and dressing area down stage right.
And perhaps most notably, “the walls below the ceiling … dissolve mysteriously into air” with see-through scrim surrounding the space on three walls, embodying Maggie’s ominous assertion in Act I that “the walls in this house have ears.”
It’s a perfect set for this grotesquely fascinating family drama to play out, and What a Do extends the experience out into the lobby with the decor of a birthday party, wicker furniture with floral patterns, and an arboretum heavy with flowers, so the audience members are invited into the story and shift into the time and place from the moment they walk in the door. Williams didn’t call for this, but this imaginative touch is wonderfully effective.
Other areas in which this production turns on its imaginative powers include 1950s-inspired costumes by Nancy King that elegantly evoke character and could be read as more contemporary styles as well as sound design by John Purchase. The opening jazz medley and blues interludes between scenes effect both time and mood, and sound effects to indicate action — the sounds of croquet mallets striking balls, fireworks, bird calls and cries — both punctuate and disrupt the narrative flow to some extent, emerging from outside the cage of a room where the central action and dialogue takes place, a reminder that there is a world beyond the emotional turmoil contained in this room.
The main players — Maggie, Brick and Big Daddy — in this production are excellent in their roles, and their interactions with each other provide such a strong foundation for the play that the weakness of secondary characters’ acting, in which lines at times feel more delivered than lived, is minor and thankfully fails to drag down the show.
Ashlyn Shawver is fierce as Maggie, owning the aria of Act I with her melodious voice and hitting the complexity of all the character’s emotional notes. Her physical presence is powerful and strong, and yet her vulnerability is real.
Joe Dely’s Brick is absent and indifferent in all the right ways; his quiet rage bubbles beneath the surface. His literal and figurative crutch and his literal and figurative violence are used to great effect. Both his power and vulnerability are palpable as well, and have such a distinctly different quality than Shawver’s. As he drinks, he grows progressively more drunk in a way that is utterly believable and never even hints at caricature. This is a phenomenal feat.
Dave Stubbs plays Big Daddy with just the right enormity. He’s fearsome, loathsome and also compassionate, and a truth teller amid the “stench of mendacity.” These actors, as well as a very strong Big Mama in Stacy (Little) Vest, stay committed to their respective characters’ tragic humanity, and it is largely from this that the production draws its power.
Ultimately, with a strong cast and design elements, Wolfe has manifested “that cloudy, flickering, evanescent — fiercely charged! — interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis” that Williams demanded in this play; and he leaves just enough mystery for the audience members to enter through their own imaginations, while drawing on his own and that of his actors and designers to bring to life a truly collaborative theatrical experience the playwright himself no doubt would endorse.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
What a Do Theatre
4071 W. Dickman Rd, Springfield
Through May 21