What A Do’s ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ scorching
SPRINGFIELD—Tennessee Williams isn’t where you go if you’re looking for a quick pick-me-up or an escape into the hilarity of a comedic farce. He is, however, where you go if you’re looking for an unforgiving look at humanity, at the issues which haunt us and keep us from living authentic lives, making loving connections or even functioning as competent adults.
In other words, he’s where you go if you want a challenge, something for your mind and heart to chew upon long after you’ve left the theater. When it comes to that, it’s hard to beat Williams for good American theater.
What a Do Theater is performing Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and it is just as intense and demanding as you would expect a Williams show to be. Directed by Randy Wolfe, the family drama starts with Maggie the Cat and Brick in their bedroom, tensions palpable as Ashlyn Shawver (making her return to What a Do stage after performing in their inaugural show of “Doubt” and later in “Next to Normal”) as Maggie delivers an ongoing monologue to a barely response Brick, played by Joe Dely (a What a Do regular).
But although the alcoholic Brick has little to say, that doesn’t mean Dely isn’t putting on an incredible performance. He gives reactions from subtle to acute. He shoots dark glances at her, his face displays psychic pain and when he does speak, he does with a tautness and tension that suggests he is a pot about to boil over. Brick has injured himself and hobbles around on a crutch as he tries to drink himself into a stupor. Dely does an excellent job of limping and showing the external pain that matches the internal. It especially helps that between scenes, with the lights out, he still limps whenever the audience can see him.
Shawver is the eponymous cat dancing on a hot tin roof, refusing to jump off even though her husband encourages her to do so, encourages her to have an affair because he refuses to have sex with her—letting her know in no uncertain terms that he can’t stand her. She owns the stage when she is on it, displaying a strength and cunning even as her husband humiliates her. She may be catty and manipulative, but Shawver gives us a reason to like Maggie, or at least to pity her.
While others pass through and interrupt, most of the first act belong to this strained couple. Dely and Shawver make a good team, setting up the show, raising the stakes and hinting at the pain Brick is repressing and the reasons he pushes his wife and his life away.
But if the strained connection and chemistry between Shawver and Dely is good, it is a pale shadow compared to the relationship between Dave Stubbs’ Big Daddy and Dely. It is there the tension really starts to fly and there the themes of the show begin to impress themselves on the audience. Brick and Big Daddy are both caught in lies, even as they are presented as the only two who never lie to each other.
Big Daddy is dying of cancer, but the rest of the family has told him and Big Mama, played by Stacy (Little) Vest that his lab reports were clean—so he could enjoy his 65th birthday. Meanwhile Gooper (Carlen Kernish) and Mae (Teri (Christ) Noaeill), Big Daddy’s other son and his wife, scheme to inherit the cotton plantation and Big Daddy’s $10 million estate. Kernish slinks behind the stage, eavesdropping and seemingly playing the part of the responsible son, while Noaeill’s Mae matches Maggie for cattiness and snobbery.
Stubbs embodies well the dying patriarch who is used to being in command, to being listened to. He is harsh and rude, especially to his wife, but when with Brick, he gives short glimpses into his vulnerable humanity.
Vest has a challenging role to play with Big Mama, for Williams writes her as an object of Big Daddy’s disdain and like him she is deceived by those around her. While Vest does well in her interactions with the daughters, especially with Maggie, in one key scene she struggles. Big Daddy humiliates her before the family, saying cruel things to her and Vest gives little reaction and, in fact, does not appear to be listening or giving us the impression she is hearing this for the first time. It takes the edge off Big Daddy’s cruelty and makes the scene less powerful than it could be.
John Purchase did an excellent job with the sound design—with off-stage sounds frequently interrupting and sometimes overpowering the characters on stage, adding to their distraction and their tension. There was also excellent jazzy transition music.
Samantha Snow’s lighting (she also doubled as the scenic designer) was mostly straightforward, giving the story exactly what it needed and no more—except for some specials in the beginning that bordered on the self-indulgent. What a Do has an amazing lighting rig for a theater of its size and it must be tempting to show off a little of what it can do, especially in a show like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that has few other demands.
As scenic designer, Snow used the lengthy What a Do stage well, creating not only separate living areas where scenes could be set in the spacious bedroom of Brick and Maggie, but she also set up screens that let the audience see beyond the stage—onto the terrace, the bathroom, the dressing room and the parlor. It was a clever setup that let you see when people were eavesdropping and the machinations going on behind the scene. She also elevated the bed, making it a central piece to constantly remind the audience that this is a family where sex destroys as much as it creates.
Thomas Koehler did an excellent job of dressing Snow’s set. Koehler helped create the atmosphere of a very wealthy family. From the full-length mirror that Maggie preens in front of to the stocked bar that Brick constantly visits, each piece sets the atmosphere and serves a function.
Wolfe knows how to manage a show’s levels well so that he captures the audience’s attentions and then builds to a climax. It is somewhat awkward where he places the intermission—going with only one instead of the traditional two. While it ends on an intense note, it is then hard to return to that same scene with the same intensity. But, for a modern audience, one intermission certainly works better than two.
What a Do does an excellent job with the classics, especially those classics that are rich in themes and dramatic action. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” may be a period piece with its attitudes toward homosexuality and the power exchanges between men and women, but it still resonates and challenges its audiences to walk away thinking.