BY SANDY STAGGS
The Market Theatre Company in Anderson launched its sophomore season this weekend with the classic Southern gothic drama, Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” And this one is a doozy!
Winner of the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, “Cat on A Hot Tin Roof” has lost none of its luster over the last six decades and is still a popular programming choice for community and professional theatres, having been staged at the Foothills Playhouse last year and at Spartanburg Little Theatre in 2015.
The entire play occurs in one evening at a Mississippi Delta mansion as the Pollitt clan celebrates the 65th birthday of its patriarch, Big Daddy, a wealthy cotton tycoon (played genteelly by Rob Gentry) and whose impending death (unbeknownst to him) brings family secrets and rivalries to the surface.
Not only have the children lied to Big Daddy about his clean bill of health from the Ochsner Clinic, but eldest son Gooper (Craig Smith) and his busybody pregnant wife, Mae (Katrina Gass), derisively referred to as Brother Man and Sister Woman, are already staking their claim to Big Daddy’s estate, particularly the “28,000 acres of the most fertile land this side of the valley Nile.”
But the crux of the play centers on the youngest – and doted on – good-looking son Brick (Anderson University junior Joshua Barnes) and his gorgeous wife Maggie the Cat, played by Market co-founder Meghan Cole. A former Ole Miss football star, Brick is now a broken man with a major alcohol addiction and hobbles around with a crutch throughout the story due to a broken ankle from the previous night when, in a drunken stupor, he tried to jump hurdles at the local high school track.
Brick leans on his crutch just as much as his liquor and both are withheld from him to reveal the reason for Brick’s disintegration (the suicide of a “very close” friend Skipper) through two of the finest, most astute duologues in American theatre – with Maggie in act one and Big Daddy in the second act.
Ms. Cole, who bears a striking resemblance to the definitive Maggie, Elizabeth Taylor in 1958 film version with Paul Newman and Burl Ives, is downright sensational in this part. Sensual and voluptuous in her slip and nylons, Ms. Cole slinks around the bedroom like a Tabby in heat as Brick spurns her every advance and via the thin walls in the mansion, everyone knows the childless couple have not have sex in a very long time.
In the play’s traditional Deep South drawl, Ms. Cole (last seen as the buxom Doralee in “9 to 5: The Musical” as the sensual Maggie
is the epitome of cunning and with the arch of an eyebrow or lighting of a cigarette between her two middle fingers, she exudes sex appeal from every pore and a slight desperation, as Maggie too wants to butter up Big Daddy for their slice of the proverbial cotton pie.
Barnes has the toughest part. Playing a weak, broken man is not simple and he spends as much time pouring a high-ball as he does shunning his beautiful wife or rationalizing his alcoholism. And his Brick displays less contempt than most portrayals in favor of bitterness and sadness, which is always the way I interpreted Brick. And it makes him more layered and empathetic, as opposed to a spoiled, bratty lush.
As Big Daddy, Gentry is the consummate pro. Last appearing in the company’s inaugural production of “The Fantasticks,” Gentry delivers his lines in a gruff, authoritative voice and sells the part of the virile tycoon who detests the church, the constant lies and most of his family including his emotional wife Big Mama (a winsome Alexandra Eshenbaugh). And he nails his lengthy speeches with gentlemanly aplomb.
Rounding out the cast of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” are Jeff Bennett as Reverend Tooker and Drew Kenyon as both Doctor Baugh and Stage Manager.
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is a seductive drama, and in the hands of director Christopher Rose, this play is no amateur hour with finely-tuned, committed performances that are wholly-enthralling and entertaining. Though Williams revised his play in 1974, this is the original version albeit Rose did omit a few superfluous characters such as the servants and Gooper and Mae’s five “no-neck” monster children. They were not missed.
The action occurs in-the-round (with most of the drama within sightline of any seat) on Craig Smith’s bedroom set that features period reclaimed wooden flooring, as well as antique brass bed, a circular bar and radio that wraps around one of the support posts in the Arts Center space and a dressing table, replete with period picture frames and other items secured by Prop mistress Kelly Lee.
Haley Putnam’s costumes look authentic and appropriate for the characters, especially Maggie’s second exquisite ivory dress. However, I do feel her opening black number with a massive floral print is a bit busy and dowdy and doesn’t live up to Maggie’s sense of fashion.
Frequent Market collaborator AJ Weaver returns as Sound Designer, along with Marianna Mata and Kenyon.
Please note this play is rated PG-13 and contains some adult themes and language.
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” runs through March 12, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. at The Market Theatre Company, 110 W Federal St. in Anderson. For tickets, call (864) 729-2999 or visit http://www.themarketanderson.org/.