Tennessee Williams always objected to the original Broadway production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," in which director Elia Kazan injected a note of hope into the third act.
In his 1955 published script, the playwright explained that he felt the "moral paralysis" of Brick, the male lead, "was a root thing in his tragedy," unlikely to undergo a sudden change of heart.
With that in mind, one of the most impressive aspects of the powerful production at Everyman Theatre is that director Vincent Lancisi has managed to have it both ways. He has staged the Broadway version, but the portrayals he elicits from his skillful actors are so "root" deep that, in the end, no matter how hopeful the characters may claim to be, their ultimate despair and paralysis is unshakable.
The result is not only a harrowing interpretation, but a truthful one -- an especially notable attainment for a play in which uncovering truth is a major issue.
Although the title refers to Brick's wife, Maggie "the cat," the play really belongs to Brick and, as played by Kyle Prue, Brick's predominance is unmistakable. Before the action begins, Brick, an alcoholic ex-athlete, has broken his ankle trying to jump hurdles at 3 a.m. As staged by Lancisi with fight choreography by Lewis Shaw, not only does Prue's seething self-loathing permeate every scene, but his omnipresent crutch is so significant -- physically and metaphorically -- that it practically becomes a character in its own right.
The play takes place on the 65th birthday of Brick's father, Big Daddy, when the family -- all except Big Daddy and his wife -- has found out he is dying of cancer. Keeping this news from the old man is only the newest lie undermining this rich Southern family.
For some time, Brick, Big Daddy's younger, but favorite son, has been using liquor to drown the truth of his feelings for his deceased best friend as well as his distaste for beautiful, frustrated, childless Maggie.
Lancisi's interpretation is dead on -- making the second-act confrontation between Prue's Brick and Timmy Ray James' mean-spirited Big Daddy the heart of the production. Williams wrote in his memoir, "in 'Cat' I reached beyond myself, in the second act, to a kind of crude eloquence of expression in Big Daddy that I have managed to give no other character of my creation."
James' Big Daddy is a revelation. The actor, who had some trouble unearthing sufficient anger as the male lead in David Mamet's "Oleanna" at Everyman two seasons ago, has no problem here. Nearly unrecognizable with his close-cropped hair and gray goatee, his Big Daddy is a venomous patriarch.
Yet there is no doubt that Brick is his father's son. They are alike in their anger and cruelty, but opposites in the way they handle life. Big Daddy faces it head on; Brick retreats. Hurling repressed truths at each other at the end of the act, they are both momentarily broken, their backs to each other, sharing an emotion they've never dared admit -- defeat.
Compared to this level of warfare, the desperation shown by Shannon Parks' Maggie comes across as cool instead of hot-blooded. She believes her will is strong enough to win out, but Brick's eventual show of capitulation is just show.
The supporting performances add fuel to the protagonists' fire. Nigel Reed's Gooper bears enough of a resemblance to Prue to be convincing as his older brother, but he is also insipid enough to lend credence to his father's dislike for him. Similarly, Deborah Hazlett plays Gooper's wife as the kind of syrupy genteel schemer who is his ideal mate.
Costume designer Rosemary Pardee's use of silk and lace and (( Dan Conway's chinoiserie-influenced set readily convey the family's wealth and luxury in this beautifully detailed co-production by Everyman and Columbia's Rep Stage.
TTC "What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?" Maggie asks early on. Lancisi's sure-footed interpretation can claim that victory. It hangs on with a vengeance -- long after the final curtain.
'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'
Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 2: 30 p.m. Sundays, through June 7
Pub Date: 5/23/98