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The characters in Tennessee Williams’ plays aren’t human so much as shape-shifting monsters, manimals caught writhing in the painful moments before total transformation occurs. In Sweet Bird of Youth, for instance, the decaying, undead movie star warns the diseased stud, “When monster meets monster, one has to give way, and it will never be me.” In Suddenly, Last Summer, an ancient spider woman haunts a garden of carnivorous plants and plots her daughter-in-law’s lobotomy. And in Cat on a Hit Tin Roof, currently showcased in a solid, if not soaring, production at Rep Stage, a forlorn cat woman plays with the truth of her husband’s sexuality as though it were a ball of twine, at first merely pawing it, later unraveling it completely, then mashing it up and offering it as a gift to a dying colossus.
It is Big Daddy’s 65th birthday, and an entire family of monsters has gathered to celebrate. Greedy Brother Man and Sister Woman, their brood of bad seeds, a cowed Big Mama, a drunk, crippled Brick, and his aching wife, Maggie, all are linked by a terrible secret: Big Daddy is rotting on the inside, dying of cancer, and will not live to see his 66th birthday. These vultures ruminate on whether his plantation, “28, 000 acres of th’ richest land this side of the Valley Nile,” will go to Brother Man or Daddy’s preferred son, Brick. They also ponder the mystery of why former football star Brick hasn’t sired a child yetand why he has polluted himself with drink since the death of his closest friend, Skipper.
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The first act of Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winner belongs to Maggie the Cat (Shannon Parks). Snaking out of a butter-stained lace dress, she vamps in a white slip, desperately trying to convince her husband of how badly she needs him and, more, understands him. “It was one of those beautiful, ideal things they tell about in Greek legends,” Maggie says of Brick’s relationship with Skipper. Parks manages the lineand the rest of Williams’ dialogue, that odd combination of pulp and poetryin a careful Southern accent. The actress is a knockout, and she works hard throughoutstalking her husband around their bedroom like a panther, purring at Big Daddy’s feet, even cat-fighting with Sister Womanbut Parks lacks the full-bodied, tortured frustration that her character, pursuing wealth and sex recklessly, demands. Put plainly, she is not horny enough. It is only in the play’s closing moments, with her final, false birthday present to Big Daddy, and her last bid to make that lie into a truth, that Parks fully inhabits Maggie’s skin.
After intermission, Maggie and the rest of the clansave Brick and Big Daddyare exiled to the perimeters of the stage (a place where, thanks to Dan Conway’s set, the plantation’s transparent walls bleed into a swamp thick with trees and hanging moss). At this point, director Vincent Lancisi’s production finally starts to generate some heat. Lancisi transforms Cat into a ghost play, prefacing Williams’s extended father-son confrontation with the voices of field hands singing hymns offstage and ending it with a display of fireworks that glow like will-o’-the-wisps. He conjures up the spirits not only of Skipper, but of the plantation’s previous owners, the two homosexual bachelors who died in Maggie and Brick’s bedroom.
Timmy Ray James as the patriarch and Kyle Prue as the son make formidable sparring partners. (The two just appeared in Lonely Planet at the Everyman Theatre in Baltimore, where this production of Cat will go after its run in Columbia ends.) Furiously, they strive to cross the gulf of lies that separates them. James as Big Daddy is a marvelous creature, a foul-mouthed rhino disgusted by his family’s selfishness and (Williams uses the word repeatedly) mendacity, devoted to saving his younger son’s life. “One thing you can grow on a big place more important than cotton is tolerance,” he spouts, but Brick, repulsed at the suggestion that he and Skipper shared anything but a “clean friendship,” remains unable to receive his father’s acceptance. Watching Prue splinter, the secrets of his troubled sexuality cracking open like fault lines, is extraordinary. The actorsplaying extremes of rage and neediness at the same timemake for phenomenal theater.
Of all his plays, Williams called Cat on a Hot Tin Roof his favorite, mainly, he wrote in his autobiography, because of the depth of characterization of Big Daddy. It’s a difficult play to get on its feet: It is set in one room, its action is continuous, and it’s rife with ponderous language. Lancisi’s direction serves the script welleven the problematic third act (Williams, unsure himself, wrote two endings, both available for production) unfurls easilybut it isn’t risky or grand. That he chose to exclude Williams’ infamous joke about an elephant’s erection is one small example of his safe approach to the material. Only during the play’s second act, when Big Daddy and Brick face off, does Lancisi’s staging inch into the territory of serious tragedy. Likewise, out of a mostly capable cast, only James and Prue are allowed to claw past competency with their performances and approach the raw emotionality and horror of truth their characters feel.CP