Fort Worth — Tennessee Williams’ ability to put so much complexity into a seemingly simple story is what made him one of the greatest playwrights to ever live. Among his numerous great works, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, produced by Stolen Shakespeare Guild, stands out as both his favorite and arguably his best, a distinction which SSG affirms in their capable production.
The Pollitt family has gathered for the birthday of the family patriarch, Big Daddy (Kit Hussey). Big Daddy’s favorite son Brick (Christian Schmoker) limps around on the bedroom set, nursing a broken leg and a glass of whiskey, which he refills liberally. Through interactions with his wife Maggie (Katreeva Phillips) and Big Daddy, along with his mother, Big Mama (Phyllis Clayton-Huaute, brother Gooper (Alex Wade) and his wife Mae (Libby Hawkins), the audience learns that Brick has recently lost his best friend Skipper, who might have been more than a friend, and that Big Daddy is dying of cancer.
Williams’ ability to address the grieving process in multiple ways is a fascinating examination of human emotion. Beyond that, his language is entrancing. The play moves almost musically, with a treble and bass clef. The treble is what’s happening on the surface, such as familial tensions and marital problems. The bass represents the simmering undercurrent of commentary on life that Williams was so good at exploring. The depth of the play is staggering.
Director Alex Krus’ cast performs admirably. Maggie and Big Daddy each have a voluminous amount of lines to deliver, both dominating their own nearly full act scenes with Brick. Phillips is affecting as Maggie the Cat. She is frenetic and desperate as she scurries about the bedroom suite whilst plumbing Brick’s psyche about what’s causing him to hide in the bottom of a bottle, and why he won’t crawl out long enough to actually sleep with her. A strong domestic facade laced with passive aggression that makes her all at once maddening and sympathetic.
Hussey’s Big Daddy is interesting in that while he’s a fairly slight man, his shadow does loom big over the family. The Pollitt’s have the most successful cotton plantation in the Mississippi Delta area and the question of succession and inheritance is important. However, unaware of his grim diagnosis, the Big Daddy character walks a fine line between mortality and vitality. Hussey is equal to the task. Despite Schmoker being a little bigger than him, his presence overwhelms the room. He’s a larger-than-life figure that suddenly has to deal with not having much of a life left. Granted, a lot of his dealing with it takes place off stage, but Hussey still shines as the passing patriarch.
Schmoker arguably has the most difficult role, because despite being the main character, Brick really doesn’t say much. He’s depressed and prefers to use his mouth for inebriation rather than talking. While Schmoker is fine at shuffling around the room playing sad, there is a lack of that underlying tension. It comes out when he’s forced into a crescendo-ing argument, but otherwise, the tension is difficult to sense.
This isn’t an easy play to stage. True, it’s one set, the bedroom, and takes place in real time, but Williams’ aforementioned depth and composition really have to be understood in order to mount a good production. Krus clearly understands the text and ultimately gets good performances out of his cast. It’s not the greatest production ever, but it’s solid enough to recommend.
Brick drinks until he hears the “click” in his head that makes him more easy-going and approachable. His frustration comes from the seemingly interminable time it’s taking to get there. Luckily for the audience, this play, though long and difficult, goes down easily. No alcoholic motivation necessary.