Sooner or later, most plays come to a moment of truth. It can be, relatively, as simple as unmasking the murderer, or as complex as wondering on the way home if, perhaps, the ending told more lies than it purported to answer—sometimes, even the writers aren’t sure just what took place.
For Tennessee Williams, writing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof must have been as deeply rewarding artistically (which his second Pulitzer Prize merely confirmed) but also marvellously cathartic.
Imagine putting your greatest inner turmoil onto the stage and having actors live your fears, hopes and dilemmas night after night in front of strangers. Still, the wise saying “don’t tell too much truth” must come to bear—especially in the mid-1950s when most of the “civilized” world wasn’t ready to admit the existence of homosexuality, much less tolerate it. (Today, it’s inescapable, but still viewed as evil incarnate by many who enjoy looking down on others rather than into themselves.)
Williams chose not to come out until the ‘70s, yet few who see this masterpiece of bankrupt family values could ever doubt then or now that its creator knew his subject matter intimately.
Celebrating the playwright’s centenary during its 50th anniversary season, it seems entirely appropriate to give this game-changing play its first airing in Niagara-on-the-Lake. How, then, to capture the feel of its era and make it relevant for today?
Ask Eda Holmes to direct.
In the early going, this production seems muted on all fronts. Sue Lepage’s crafting of the one-set sitting/bedroom is customarily functional (several doors and a second-floor house encircling the gallery are required for the action)—decidedly earthy in tone and pastel in colour. Most of the costumes are similarly light in the primaries but rich in texture (silks, chiffon—a telling black-and-white print for Big Mama is at one with her view of life). It falls to Kevin Lamotte’s lighting wizardry to bring warmer, more positive hues through the windows.
Most important of all, it’s Gray Powell’s portrayal of Brick that, initially, causes some concern only to be understood later (during the pivotal interview with Big Daddy—Jim Mezon—in Act II).
First time attendees may well wonder why the good looking, fit young man sleeps on the couch while his most certainly “hot cat” Maggie (Moya O’Connell) rests alone in their sumptuous bed a few feet away.
Returning to change her nieces’ soiled party frock, it’s soon apparent that this childless couple are the scorn of Brick’s elder brother, Gooper (Patrick McManus) and his extra-fertile (five out of the oven with one a cookin’) bride, Mae (Nicole Underhay) and the bane of Brick’s ambitious wife (soon to be divvied up is the biggest plantation in the area—but not if Big Daddy has his way …).
Marital problems are as old as sin, perhaps a Viagra prescription is all that’s needed to reclaim all of the family’s pride (Brick was a football star, and recently a sports commentator) by producing a child of their own to silence the snickers. The one time college hero has just last night broken his ankle while attempting to jump what used to be easy hurdles—being three sheets to the wind didn’t help his reach. Throughout the “real time” play, the troubled man has to rely on a pair of crutches: one literal, the other being the contents of the well-stocked liquor cabinet. What is the matter?
With the first mention of very best friend Skipper, the uncomfortable silences begin and the possibility that Brick is not drowning his sorrows but his “disgusting” sexuality gives the narrative an unexpected turn that drives the remaining action.
Powell’s Southern drawl works well enough and his ability to flinch from virtually any human contact (with one emotionally-charged exception) builds his case of being alone amongst many, but the crystal clarity of his lines from curtain to curtain somewhat belies the non-stop quaffing of spirits. Act I, on its own, seems to be relatively mild.
But with the arrival and initial utterance of Mezon as Big Daddy after the first intermission (“Crap”), Holmes’ and Williams’ shared purpose ignites the stage and seldom loses its heat until the final irony, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true?”
By not playing the queer card in any manner, and letting Daddy roar out his own fierce degree of tolerance, the result is a convincingly nuanced portrayal of the preponderance of mendacity in “mature” families who can’t help but play one off the other when such a considerable estate is at stake. When Brick inadvertently blurts out Daddy’s secret truth, the pair are on equal footing: completely at one with the other.
No one should miss experiencing the power of a single line to define a relationship and demonstrate how hearing one’s own story in a neutral setting might be all the inspiration required to tell a little truth in the real world. JWR