CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOFby Tennessee Williams
Stolen Shakespeare Guild
Director - Alex Krus
Stage Manager - Kristi Scoggins
Set Design - George Redford
Lighting Design - Bryan Douglas
Costume Design - Kelly King
Properties Design - Traci Clements
Sound Design - Alex Krus
Maggie - Katreeva Phillips
Brick - Christian Schmoker
Big Daddy - Kit Hussey
Big Mama - Phyllis Clayton-Huaute
Mae - Libby Hawkins
Gooper - Alex Wade
Reverend Tooker - Patrick "Lynwood" Henry
Doctor Baugh - Robert Shores
Reviewed Performance: 4/18/2014
Reviewed by Michala Perreault, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Hollywood's tiptoeing whitewash of Tennessee Williams' gut-wrenching study of family greed, sex and mendacity is a mere shadow of the dysfunction Williams exposes mercilessly in his 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning work. Another theme central to the play's action - the crippling stranglehold social mores can have on society, family and the individual - ironically victimized the play itself in mid-20th century America, squeezing its film version down to implication and innuendo. Not until Williams' final revisions in 1974 has the story been told in all the raw candor Williams intended. And that is the version you'll get, presented both lovingly and directly by the Stolen Shakespeare Guild in the Fort Worth Arts District.
"What's all this fuss about Mendacity? It's the system we live in." Thus spake Big Daddy Pollitt on his birthday. He's just been given a clean bill of health after a three year illness and the family has gathered to celebrate his sixty five years on earth and his new lease on life, or so he thinks. The multi-layered mendacity is, Big Daddy is really dying of cancer, and the family has gathered not to celebrate, but to pick his bones.
Christian Schmoker shows us all the broken tragedy of ex-football star and favorite son Brick in the first thirty seconds. Cowering under wife Maggie's incessant chatter, Schmoker adds the audience to his self-made burden, dragging us as he winces at Maggie's high notes, crutches awkwardly over to the liquor stand, balancing on his one good foot, to add ice to his glass and pour himself another two fingers of bourbon. "How much more of that stuff you gonna drink tonight, Brick?" "Til I hear the click in my head, then it's alright to stop." In Act I it seems that Brick is already finished, Schmoker’s tattered voice shouting, nearly rasping, over what Brick perceives to be Maggie's attempts to apologize and win him back.
Schmoker bears yet another of Brick's burdens very openly, the fear of having disappointed the patriarch. And while we see through Brick's child eyes the demanding and oppressive Big Daddy, it’s easy to overplay or oversimplify Brick as the whiny, sullen failure, but Schmoker works him delicately. The transformation is not yet complete and Schmoker crafts the process slowly, letting us know there is more to come.
There is no love or affection between Maggie and Brick which has left them childless. This is a glaring shortcoming in the time period of the play, made ever more painful by the presence of braggart sister-in-law Mae, played to manipulative and gloating perfection by Libby Hawkins. A virtual baby-breeding machine, mother of five and very pregnant yet again, Hawkins is a tall, almost imposing woman, made more so in strategic heels, and her Mae makes abundantly clear that grandchildren imply a future, the ongoing family legacy. In this family, all are in pursuit of showing Big Daddy who more deserves to inherit his millions.
Katreeva Phillips likewise delivers Maggie almost brilliantly. In Act I Phillips brings us a seemingly superficial debutante in denial, filling the awkward space around her with endless dialogue to distract Brick for even an instant from his self-made prison of guilt. In Act II however, Phillips shifts, and we see the cooler subtlety of Maggie's calculation. Maggie is at war - not with Brick but for Brick and their future. Hawkins’ performance is as subtle as a sledgehammer, reminding all of her success at performing her daughter-in-law duty to provide heirs for the family's continuation. Maggie has no such tangible weapons, and aside from a few well-placed retorts to Mae's thinly veiled digs, Maggie must maneuver more skillfully. Phillips surprises us in Acts II and III with Maggie's depth and dimension. When she sidles up to Big Daddy like a sweet child with joyous news, we know the truth but we celebrate with her nonetheless.
Kit Hussey as Big Daddy is the big surprise. Big Daddy is supposed to be, well, big. And mean. Terrorizing his wife, sneering at his children, an uncouth brute that through little more than sweat and hard work acquired land and made a nouveau-riche fortune. Burl Ives was the model and few have challenged it. Hussey, however, shows us a Big Daddy we've never seen before. First, the "big" is gone. When Act II opens we wonder, who is that guy sitting on the couch? Where's Big Daddy? And then we see.
Hussey's Big Daddy is no slug, he’s a man’s man. Loud? Yes. Rough? A bit. Tough? You bet. He makes prolific use of the "f-bomb" in bringing us the forceful patriarch - language forbidden in 1950's Hollywood, as were all direct mentions of Brick's homo or bisexuality - yet balances it with an underlying love for his son, which succeeds in making the despicable Big Daddy almost lovable. Hussey brings a rare depth and pathos to Big Daddy that captures our hearts so we feel not only Brick's pain but also the pain of the father in the brutal heart-to-heart in Act II that begins to bring Brick back to life. We hear the roar but feel the veiled desperate attempt of a father to call out his son to be a man. Hussey's portrayal lets us forget Burl Ives and see Big Daddy in his entire dimension.
Phyllis Clayton-Haute brings us Big Mama, a lovable Southern matron, no longer controlling but lovable in her later years. She masks her pain and referees the battles with a seeming smile. On three key occasions however the mask drops and we see Clayton-Haute’s vestige of the iron magnolia. When scolded by Big Daddy for "taking over," she retreats for his benefit, so well that we believe she is truly conceding.
Alex Wade plays Gooper, the clearly not-favorite son, with passive aggressive persistence. Cowed by Big Daddy as a child, he married Mae to fill that role. Wade portrays Gooper's underlying cowardice with the subtle withdrawal of man who knows he will never quite achieve his desired end.
On George Redford's simple yet perfect set of sage-green window-screen flats broken by white painted pine walls we are unmistakably inside a monstrous southern plantation house, complete with multi-tined window panes and cross-breeze doors. While no one actually complains of heat, we are clearly in a time without air conditioning, the murky "sometime not long ago." A split level stage both separates and joins the bedroom and sitting room of Maggie & Brick's suite where Brick's shouting matches with Maggie and Big Daddy rock the house, and the screen of the flats obscures but does not hide the many eavesdroppers lurking in the hallway or on the veranda.
Traci Clements' attention to the smallest detail garnered period-perfect properties to invite us into a home, a very Southern home, belied by the enormous oil painting of a twin magnolia blossom hung over the bedstead; stuck in the past yet straddling a touch of the future. Maggie's pre-war vanity, the Philco console radio, a brass-handled dresser and Gladstone suitcase stashed by the bed all serve to blur the exact timing of the story, reiterating subliminally that family intrigue, alas, remains timeless.
Kelly King's costuming weaves beautifully into the timing, geography and family stress already delivered by set, props and lights. The family pretense comes across in Brick's selection of casual and formal silk pajamas, and Big Mama's growing control of matters is told by her heavy jewelry. Very pregnant Mae is a bulldozing Mother Superior in white-collared navy blue with pumps. Clever and calculating Maggie twirls and flounces in period-perfect, spaghetti-strap, afternoon and cocktail dresses with strap sandals. Less favored brother Gooper is diminished in bow-tie lawyer garb, while once again we are reminded of our steamy Mississippi Delta locale by Reverend Tooker in his blue and white seersucker suit.
While we never see the wretched "no-neck monsters," Maggie's term of endearment for her nieces and nephews, we certainly hear the spoiled, corn-fed brats shrieking by day and night. We hear the crack of croquet mallets from the unseen lawn, the children wrestling and fighting over who knows what, all skillfully woven into the matrix by Director Alex Krus' sound design. Bryan Douglas' subtle and artistic lighting design sweeps us from early evening’s moon and clouds, through the dark of night, complete with bursts of fireworks, and on to the golden light of early morning so skillfully that we know without a mention the passage of time.
The production is very visibly rated R for mature audiences, both on the program and on the website. Bring your brave ears, for in this version Williams bars no hold. If you crave to see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as Tennessee Williams always wanted you to, now's your chance. Don't miss it.
Fort Worth Community Arts Center
Hardy and Betty Sanders Theatre
1300 Gendy Street
Fort Worth TX 76101
Runs through Sunday May 4th
Friday – Saturday at 8:00 pm and Saturday at 2:00 pm. There is an additional performance on Sunday, May 4th at 2:00 pm.
Evening performance tickets are $18.00, $17.00 for seniors (65+), and $16.00 for students with current student ID. Matinee tickets are $15.00 for all.
Tickets may be bought online at www.stolenshakespeareguild.org or by calling Ticket Mania, 1-866-811-4111.