★★☆☆☆ - Still Hungry
Super Summer Theatre has partnered with The Speeding Theatre to initiate their “Off-Season Series” with a Two Star production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, " by Tennessee Williams, running through October 22nd at Super Summer Theatre Studios, 4340 S. Valley View Blvd., Las Vegas 89103 -- NOT Spring Mountain Ranch State Park!
[This is the first of six different theatrical events taking place as part of the “Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival” during this 2017-2018 theatre season. More on The Festival at the end of this review.]
One of Tennessee Williams’ best-known works and his personal favorite, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1955. It has maintained abundant popularity as a drama rooted in the tradition of theatrical realism and closely focused on the dynamics of family inheritance. Set in the 1950's, on a "cotton plantation home in the Mississippi Delta”, the play examines the relationships among members of the Pollitt family, primarily between the patriarch, Big Daddy, his son Brick and Brick's wife, Maggie the "Cat".
The interactions of this Southern clan in crisis take place over the course of one very hot evening -- a metaphor for the simmering character and cultural conflicts that eventually reach the boiling point. The gathering at the family estate is to celebrate Big Daddy’s 65th birthday. He’s "the Delta's biggest cotton-planter" and has just returned from the Ochsner Clinic with what he has been told is a clean bill of health. All family members (except Big Daddy and his wife, Big Mama) are aware of the true diagnosis: he is dying of cancer. His family has lied to Big Daddy and Big Mama to spare the aging couple from pain on this festive occasion but, throughout the course of the play, it becomes clear that the family has long constructed a web of deceit.
On the previous evening, Brick broke his leg while trying to jump hurdles at the school track. His wife Maggie chides him for his foolish behavior and his constant state of drunkenness, but mostly she is trying to impress – and seduce – her husband. Brick has refused to sleep with Maggie ever since his friend Skipper died. Maggie desperately wants Brick to sleep with her, both to satisfy her own physical needs, and because she wants to get pregnant and produce an heir -- knowing that Big Daddy is dying and he does not have a will. Maggie is terribly afraid of being poor, so she wants to make sure that she and Brick have a secure place in Big Daddy's will.
At its most basic, this play confronts the issue that runs through all great American drama, from Eugene O'Neill onwards: the conflict between truth and illusion. Williams's shows the conflict from many angles. Brick, an alcoholic ex-athlete, refuses to sleep with his vivacious wife, Maggie, supposedly out of guilt over the suicide of his old friend, Skipper. Brick is unable to confront his own, and Skipper's, latent homosexuality. Big Daddy, over whose inheritance the family squabbles, is equally unable to face up to the fact that he is dying of cancer. The two illusions meet head-on in the great father-son confrontation in the second act. While the play offers a social critique it finally asks whether it is better to live by lies or truth.
For the most part, the cast handles both their characterizations and Southern regional accents quite comfortably and consistently, including: Kate Sirls (Mae), Michael Sullivan (Gooper), Sue Ellen Christensen (Big Mama), and Ken Kucan (Reverend Tooker). However, for this powerful piece of American dramatic literature to work effectively, there must be a balance of the tension among the three major characters onstage. Unfortunately, this production suffers from a disproportionate amount of impact among these primary protagonists.
Big Daddy, as portrayed by Paul Malluk, transfixes the audience as the large, brash, and vulgar old-fashioned "Mississippi redneck," who believes he has returned from the grave. Even as the most sympathetic character -- a dying man who has fought his way up from poverty, a man who speaks freely in a house of secrecy and deceit and who, like Maggie, is “alive” -- his flaws serve to add dimension and complexity to his character.
As Brick, Joel Hengstler is convincing in his passive role as an object of desire not only for Skipper and Maggie but also for his doting parents, and his fans. Brick’s appeal is actually made potent by his emotional distance: every other character in the play is fixated on him, while he remains uncommunicative and self-involved.
Maggie runs up against the great wall of Brick’s refusal many times, but Amy Bell Reusch does not move beyond a woman desperate in her sense of loneliness to ever reveal her inner strength and determination – exposing the hard, nervous, and bitchy “Cat” that cunningly wins over her two leading men.
Director Cassie McGuire skillfully keeps the action moving on the small, newly-constructed proscenium stage at Super Summer Theatre Studios. Her production team has designed period elements to set the appropriate mood for a 1950's "cotton plantation home in the Mississippi Delta”: set by Alexia Chen; costumes by Inge Battatio, and sound by Bill Trapp.
Williams' most famous play and the one that catapulted him to success was A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), which changed the American theater and won Williams his first Pulitzer prize. Following this smash hit, however, the playwright staged a series of flops. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof vaulted Williams back into the theatrical stratosphere. It took eight years, but he had produced another serious blockbuster – a play that was simultaneously a significant artistic achievement and a box-office draw.
It was a brilliant piece of fate, but several of the Las Vegas theatre companies, The Speeding Theatre, Super Summer Theatre, Majestic Repertory Theatre, and A Public Fit Theatre Company, all planned to mount Tennessee Williams plays during the upcoming 2017-18 seasons. Recognizing a unique opportunity, the Artistic Directors came together, reached out to other organizations, and created the Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival, which will celebrate the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright with six different theatrical productions throughout the season and a colloquium with the Artistic Directors discussing Williams and his work.
“It was solely by chance that all of the companies planned productions of Williams’ work,” said Troy Heard, Artistic Director of Majestic Repertory Theatre. “But it truly speaks to the iconic nature of his work.”
Williams is one of America’s most revered and celebrated playwrights. His work garnered two Pulitzer Prizes, 3 Tony Awards, 4 New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, and the Drama League Award for Best Play. In 1979, the Kennedy Center honored Williams for his lifetime contribution to the Arts.
Ann Marie Pereth, Artistic Director of A Public Fit Theatre Company, said “Williams’ work is timeless and universal. The themes and characters are still relevant in today’s world.”
Williams wrote prolifically through the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s. His works peeled back the veneer of gentility and exposed the frustration, violence, and sexuality that simmer beneath the surface.
“It is exciting to collaborate with other companies and build something bigger,” said Paul Malluk, Artistic Director for The Speeding Theatre. “The Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival can help elevate the theatre community in Southern Nevada.”