Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


As far as classic American theater goes, the deservedly canonized Cat on a Hot Tin Roof sells itself. Matrix Theatre cofounder Wes Nethercott directs this production of Tennessee Williams's iconic play, for which Matrix has taken up residence at the YMCA Boll Family Theatre in downtown Detroit. The larger venue boasts stadium seating for excellent visibility, and allows set designer Eric W. Maher more space and options for his Southern plantation bedroom and adjacent breezeway. The set is a livable blend of well-worn comfort and opulence, which properties designer Stella Woitulewicz fills with lovely period incidentals and a few gallons of amber liquor. Given the literal feel of the backdrop, this faithful, grounded production concurrently presents an honest examination of the difficulty of adult family relationships, the pitfalls of longevity and legacy, and the terror of facing one's frankly disappointing, unrecognizable life.

The pinnacle of the production is its second act (of three), the blistering confrontation of Maher as worthless drunk Brick and Alan Madlane as Big Daddy Pollitt. A heretofore sidestepped conflict between father and son is dragged out into the open, allowing each to freshly wound the other as they clumsily vie to understand and be understood. Nethercott shows incredible comfort with Williams's talky dialogue, delicately guiding the long ebbs and flows of the conversation for maximum effect without maximum drama. Much of the act is surrounded by deliberate silence, with few interruptions to act as a salve; however, incidental voices and lights by Randall Mauck work in tandem to simulate an act-closing fireworks show to rival the one happening inside the house. Madlane and Maher are well matched, using their familial closeness as weapons as they dispense with niceties and claw into the scandalous truth behind Brick's career failures, chronic laissez-faire, and epic alcoholism.

As if dragging these characters through the mud wasn't enough, Williams sets his sights in the final act on fully destroying the family's seemingly unsinkable matriarch (Nancy Kammer). Big Mama is so improbably full of love, she's willfully ignorant of her husband's strong and vocal distaste for her — when Kammer passes off Madlane's dismissals with a beatific smile, hearts break almost audibly. Yet as the calculating family members surround her to reveal the truth of Big Daddy's health, Big Mama takes on a fearful strength, and the quality of her defense and support of a man who openly professes to hate her commands respect rather than pity, a wonderfully layered and commendable performance.

Yet however successful Nethercott is at bringing life to this broken family, he can't foster the same tension in the lifeless marriage of Brick and Maggie (Kristine Wakefield), the subject of the play's first act. Wakefield's sunny, chatty take on the calculating and stability-starved Maggie provides little challenge to the forcibly indifferent Maher, and their repeated abortive attempts at communication suffer from a lack of traction. Moreover, the sense of struggle to fit in with one's in-laws, especially in the palpable absence of one's partner, is suffocated by Maggie's poorly restrained contempt.

As the dramatic foils, eldest son Gooper (Brian Haggard) and his wife, Mae (Jan Cartwright), have done everything by the book to be the perfect heirs to Big Daddy, and their naked ambition for his wealth and property is one-dimensionally odious. Other characters, including Gooper and Mae's children and the family reverend and doctor, add volume to large scenes and fill out Williams's occasional backstage noise, giving some sense of the house outside the bedroom. Two servant characters are portrayed by prerecorded voices that are too well-projected to be mistaken for an offstage presence; however, the sound design more than redeems itself with boozy pre-show jazz music that turns to ultra-nostalgic songs from movies, heightening the irony between idealized love and togetherness and the ugly reality of the Pollitts. For a production that runs nearly three hours with two fifteen-minute intermissions, the levity is a welcome counterpoint to the heavy subject matter.

Despite its marginalizing the titular Maggie the Cat, this Cat on a Hot Tin Roof stands strong with its focus on the core family dynamic. As commentary on a contentious marriage, the production is withered instead of withering, but it bounces back in its unsentimental view of a fractured family held together by little more than wealth and dashed expectations.


Post a Comment