First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt once said the characters in the play “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “[show] us the difficulty of communication between people who spend their lives saying and doing things they do not mean and do not feel.” Like Roosevelt’s sentiments, I found it equally difficult to watch this play without attempting to reconcile the countenance of honesty with the earnest truth. In late summer one afternoon and evening in 1954, the 65th birthday of the Pollitt family’s patriarch, Big Daddy (David Schramm), set the stage for Tennessee William’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story of conviction soaked in family politics. Like the 28,000 acre plantation and rich house in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, what one sees is hardly what actually exists.
…an emotional spectacle of a romance trapped within a dysfunctional family.
The heat of the summer was compounded by the stresses evident in every pace of each character, which only heightened the acrimony as tempers were set ablaze in the incremental approach of the inevitable truth. The sensuous and carnally frustrated wife, Maggie (Stephanie Gibson), expressed deep desires for her husband, Brick (Andrew Pastides), who seemed largely disinterested in anything outside of a liquor bottle. Gibson’s performance as Maggie was stellar and it was hard not to focus on her for half the show. She’s both beautiful and very charming in a style that combined a 50’s pinup girl with upper class finesse. Pastides was rather poised in a cool manner but exerted sheer explosiveness when his character could no longer withhold his displeasure with everyone. His portrayal of Brick was like revving an engine and going from zero to sixty in four seconds, which was brilliant.
At first, this story took on the appearance of a melodrama of family vultures vying for the best position to collect the lion’s share of an inheritance once Big Daddy died. However, the deep-rooted dislike all these people have for each other is put on full display in a fluid clashing of starkly different personalities, as is often the case in many families. Big Daddy took command of the dialogue midway through the performance, exposing the flaws of his family with the eloquence of a bulldozer. David Schramm’s performance was absolutely masterful, as one might expect from a seasoned actor with a long list of theatre and television credits, including the role of “Roy Biggins” on the 90’s TV show Wings.
The most intriguing facets of this performance are tightly interwoven in the interactions between the characters, and their chemistry was evident from the onset. Even though all the characters are either relatives or close to the family in some aspect, such as the spineless Reverend Tooker (Paul DeBoy) – who is treated rather insignificantly, their dynamics are a folly, but no more so than any dysfunctional family eager to eavesdrop and give their unsolicited views of private matters. This is why this story’s setting in a bedroom is so profoundly appropriate, as nothing is secret and clearly nothing is ever sacred. The rudimentary values that occupy the exterior of everyone’s demeanor are non-existent when the figurative gloves come off in heated arguments over one’s most heavily guarded truths.
Maggie carried herself as the least dishonest member of the family, as she gracelessly made the case that her future hinged on keeping her marriage intact to avoid returning to poverty. Others like Big Mama (Charlotte Booker) was already acting as Big Daddy’s self-appointed regent. Booker was fantastic and very convincing as the nosey, passively judgmental matriarch. Brick’s brother, Gooper (Rod Brogen), asserted himself as the responsible son who would be the obvious choice to inherit the family business. Although he was a major figure in the plot, Brogen never truly stood out as the weasel he’s supposed to be. I wanted to be shocked everyone in and around the family made huge assumptions about each other and their place in Big Daddy’s list of beneficiaries, but just as in real life, money and the prospect of money brings out the worst in people. I thought the actors ultimately made this performance very believable and give their overall performance an A-.
In some ways, this story is a true tragedy. It felt that way because the actors were so well in tune with their characters who possessed so much and had so little. Much credit goes to director Judith Ivey, who is a Tony Award winner for her portrayals in “Steaming” and “Hurlyburly.” Ivey has created, as scenic designer Adam Koch puts it, “an emotional spectacle of a romance trapped within a dysfunctional family.” Koch himself captures a “voyeuristic realism that then explodes” with a beautiful set reminiscent of a classic southern plantation, and some rather creative extenuating walls that affirm the perpetual eavesdropping. Costume designer Joseph Aulisi has a robust history in design for theatre and film, which has won him three Costume Design Guild Awards, and it shows in a wonderful cast wardrobe. Light designer John Ambrosone and sound designer Victoria Deiorio were a perfect complement, giving the set rich aesthetics and a splendid auditory atmosphere.
Running Time: two hours and thirty minutes with one intermission.
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is playing now through October 14, 2018, at Baltimore Center Stage. For more information and tickets, please visit their website by clicking here.