By Jay Handelman
Tennessee Williams’ still potent family drama “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is a tricky and challenging play that puts a lot of demands on a theater, cast, and, potentially, the audience. I’ve seen productions with the appropriate bite and a lot of fire, but too many others were placid versions with performers who sounded like they were reciting words without really understanding the story or who they were playing.
The new Venice Theatre production that opened Friday comes closer to the former and is strong enough to keep you involved even when some of the actors aren’t fully convincing.
It gets most of its punch from Artistic Director Murray Chase, who returns to the role of Big Daddy after 18 years with a real paternal control and an unexpected sense of compassion. This Big Daddy is a bit softer than you might expect, but he’s still a demanding family patriarch who is trying to discover some hidden truths as he celebrates his 65th birthday on his large Mississippi estate. After building a vast fortune as a cotton tycoon and thinking he has avoided a fatal medical diagnosis, Big Daddy Pollitt is now considering the future, and who should get what when he dies.
He could leave it all to his oldest son, Gooper, a doltish attorney with a doting wife and growing brood of children who barely disguises his efforts to suck up to his father. Gooper will do anything to undermine his younger brother, Brick, who is obviously closer to their father.
Daddy favors Brick, too, but he needs to understand why his son has become an alcoholic, a problem that was compounded after the recent death of his best friend. Brick is questioned, subtly and delicately, about the nature of their relationship by his father and his vixenish wife, Maggie, who is also part of the problem. The interrogations only fuel his desire to keep drinking until he hears the “click” in his head that means he has tuned out all the yelling and pleading.
The story flows smoothly and clearly in the production staged by Ron Ziegler on an impressive set by Tim Wisgerhof that suggests a large plantation bedroom covered by slatted-wood shutters without fully depicting it.
That’s where Amanda Heisey as Maggie and Patrick Tancey as Brick first do battle. Well, he hops around on a crutch, pouring one whiskey after another to drown out the sound of her voice while she pleads and cajoles and attempts to seduce him, or at least bring a smile to his face. But nothing works.
Heisey holds her own in what is, essentially, a long, extended monologue with brief interruptions from Brick. She has the right attitude and allure but could use more vocal variety because after a while Maggie’s words begin to run together and sound the same.
As Brick, Tancey reveals control, focus and a greater depth than he has been given an opportunity to show in his past, mostly musical, roles. Brick is sullen and despondent, and Tancey manages to make something of those subtle qualities, especially in the second act when he is confronted by his father.
That’s where the production becomes most compelling. There’s not a lot of yelling (which you might expect) as the two actors talk and draw you into their conversation. Daddy demands answers and threatens a bit while Brick acts detached and uncaring.
Mary E. Kurtz plays Big Mama with a bit of heart and a blind eye to the realities of what’s happening around her. Shawn Genther is upright as Gooper, and Stacey Gilson, as his wife, Mae, gets in a few digs.
Wisgerhof gives the actors plenty of room to move around, and they look right in the period Southern costumes by Francine Smetts, under the impactful lighting by John Michael Andzulis.
Williams’ play is all about speaking or uncovering truths, and while Ziegler and his cast may not always touch on every possibility, they come close enough to keep you involved and caring about what happens to this troubled family.