Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan




Shaw's Cat near purr-fect!

Moya OConnell as Maggie - David Cooper photo Elia Kazan directed many Tennessee Williams's plays, describing the spine of his characters as being formed by the dynamic tension between "the mind's despair and the heart's hope."

In Shaw's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Director Eda Holmes skilfully does Williams poetic justice - as each character, superbly played by her gifted ensemble, cuts straight to the bone. Wondering how deeply each may sink, one is transfixed by their steady stoop to primeval slime. Cat won Williams the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, featuring recurring motifs of Southern social mores, greed and superficiality summed up in Brick's term, "mendacity," as well as decay, sexual desire, and death. The play was adapted as a movie in 1958, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman.

In the wonderfully detailed program's Director's Notes, Holmes quotes Maggie (Moya O'Connell) to illustrate the basic dilemma: "What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof? - I wish I knew ... Just staying on it, I guess, as long as she can."

Holmes adds: "Every character is pushed to the edge of what they can bear. Yet despite the pain and fear of despair, each ... strives to renew the hope that they hold in their hearts. Tennessee Williams's gift to us is his conviction that a human being's capacity to endure is born of the complex relationship between hope and despair - it keeps us alive and ultimately makes us beautiful." The last scene and dialogue between Maggie and Brick captures this situation perfectly.

Big Daddy, played fiercely well by the hulking Jim Mezon, celebrates his 65th birthday, dying of colon cancer, but doesn't know it, lied to (mendacity) by those scheming to inherit his huge cotton plantation - son Gooper (Patrick McManus), a corporate lawyer and the ever-pregnant wife, Mae (Nicole Underhay), with five children and another on the way, who are both so incredibly good at being bad that we want to hiss them off the stage. Underhay mercilessly razzes Maggie's (Moya O'Connell) lack of fertility and her boozy husband, Brick (Gray Powell), a broken-down former pro football star who laments the death of his best friend and fellow jock, Skipper, as Williams turns the spotlight on the issue of homosexuality.

Cast of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - Emily Cooper photo Eda Holmes Gray Powell and Jim Mezon - David Cooper photo Jim Mezon as Big Daddy - David Cooper photo Jim Mezon

O'Connell literally sizzles as Maggie, dominating Act 1 attired in a slip as she struts about and selects a dress to replace the one soiled by one of her sister-in-law's "little no-neck monsters," and Powell fizzles, reduced to non-stop drinking, further restricted by a cast on a broken ankle, earned by drunkenly trying to run the hurdles (nice touch) one night at the local schoolyard. The plaster may as well cover his entire body as he drinks until he hears that "click" in his brain that indicates he is long gone.

Designer Sue LePage capably follows Williams's detailed stage directions: "the room must evoke some ghosts", the ghosts of Jack Straw and Peter Ochello, the old, gay bachelor couple who owned the place and took in Big Daddy as a young man. She states, "Our bedroom setting appears deeply scarred by time and weather. Its style of architecture takes us back through the great plantation homes of the American South all the way to ancient Greece. We brought photographs of crumbling homes in Havana and in New Orleans after the devastation of Katrina to our wonderful scenic artists to inspire their painting of this beautiful ruin."

Moya OConnell - David Cooper photo Moya OConnell and Gray Powell - Emily Cooper photo Moya OConnell Nicole Underhay

Such is the exquisite detail lavished upon this drama by Holmes and LePage who, along with the remarkable cast, render this a Shaw must-see that I would gladly take in again.

Throughout the troubled evening, the entire family faces nasty, bottled-up issues. Big Daddy attempts a reconciliation with Brick, his favourite son as Mezon deftly moves from anger to compassion. He and Maggie confront Brick about the true nature of his relationship with Skipper, the apparent source of Brick's sorrow and cause of his alcoholism.

As Big Daddy observes his 65th birthday, terminally ill with cancer, Brick (Powell) with a wonderfully hollow voice, explains how Maggie, convinced that Brick and Skipper were engaged in a homosexual relationship, slept with Skipper out of revenge. He thinks Skipper's introspection and friendship with Brick ultimately led to his suicide. Further, he tells Big Daddy that the negative report from the clinic was falsified. Big Daddy storms out of the room. Maggie, Brick, Mae, Gooper and Doc Baugh (Jay Turvey) decide to tell Big Mama (Corrine Koslo) the truth about his illness, and she is devastated. Gooper and Mae start to discuss the division of the Pollitt estate, but Koslo's Big Mama is dazzling as she defends her husband from Gooper and Mae's proposals.

Big Daddy ultimately reappears and makes known his plans to die peacefully. Maggie tells him she is pregnant. Gooper and Mae know this is a lie, but Big Mama and Big Daddy, (placing his hand suggestively on her pelvis) believe that Maggie "has life." Alone at the end, "Maggie the Cat" locks away the liquor and promises Brick that she will "make the lie true," remaining very much the cat on a hot, tin roof, and demonstrating her incredibly resilient will, forgiveness and love for Brick.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof plays through Oct. 23 at the Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario; Tickets $32-$91 Call: (800) 511-7429 or www.shawfest.com



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