‘Cat On a Hot Tin Roof’ — a Review of Tennessee Williams’ Classic Play

Maggie the Cat is arching her back and hissing in a couple of Orange County corners these days. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Tennessee Williams’ snarling expose of mendacity among the peach blossoms, is playing at both the Garden Grove Theatre and the Newport Theatre Arts Center in Newport Beach.

Garden Grove’s valid staging, under Michael Ross’ frothy direction, is particularly intriguing, but not just for the strong efforts of the cast.

The theater uses Williams’ original script, not the one he revised for the Broadway premiere in 1955. At the time, director Elia Kazan insisted on the changes, and Williams agreed, but only unhappily. Due in great part to the original production’s success, the altered version traditionally has been the one playhouses have staged.

The thrust of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” remains the same, no matter which script you turn to. The family warfare over Big Daddy’s will and the domestic heat and pain of Brick and Maggie’s relationship are the story’s pillars, but Williams’ emphasis on characters shifts somewhat.

Now left intact are longer speeches and exchanges between Brick and Big Daddy, and it increases their size–Big Daddy is even bigger, and the dimensions of Brick’s doubts and frustrations are more clearly defined. Williams rambles (one can understand Kazan’s anxiety over these passages, which are fairly static), but even the irrelevancies seem tied to the exploration of the heavyweight characters.

This version presents new opportunities for Jack Byron as Big Daddy and Bart Story as Brick, and both take advantage. Byron stomps around, his eyes glaring at the pygmies who live to please Big Daddy, the picture of a corrupted Southern patriarch. When he screams “Liars!” after learning he’s been deceived by his kin, it’s as if he’s been poisoned by the world he’s created.

Story gives Brick more of a lyrical quality. He’s so pure and unaffected, it’s like watching a defrocked minister suffering through his turmoil; Brick’s drinking is almost a sacrament of absolution. It may leave Brick without much sexual impact, but it’s a compelling approach.

Maggie, Brick’s hungry, protective wife, is diminished some but still shows the drama’s middle road between Big Daddy’s blindly destructive power and Brick’s impotent self-awareness. Sydney Thornton-Smith doesn’t give her sweep, but she does have the role’s cunning earthiness down. What’s most missing is the scary desperation that propels Maggie to react the way she does.

Thornton-Smith reaches that pitch in one scene. Maggie asks herself who she is, then looks in the mirror, announcing that she’s Maggie the Cat. Thornton-Smith scratches at the air, her eyes charged with something unnatural, and you know she’ll do anything to survive.

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Art Fans: For beautiful and unique imagery, please visit Aartjones Gallery.

Director’s cue: Movie lovers, you may also want to take a look at Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Casablanca.
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Nick Smithville.