Set on a rich Mississippi Delta plantation south of Memphis, the play's lusty portrayal of a patriarch and his two sons -- all three of them unhappily married -- depicts what can happen when love dies and sex shrivels. The script is a tapestry of hate and hardness, jealousy and greed, self-destruction and survival. Williams' net sweeps across such a wide swath of human emotions, it's easy for a production to lose its focus.
Is the play primarily about Maggie, the outsider daughter-in-law who could end up being penniless again if her marriage unravels? Is Maggie's alcoholic husband, Brick, a dominant character or a self-pitying whine? Is it possible, or even desirable, to prevent bellicose Big Daddy Pollitt from overwhelming the evening in the same crude way that he presides over his 28,000-acre plantation? Allow any of these variables to spin out of control, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof can become all too tedious. But the current high-wire balancing act at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis gets Cat about as right as Cat can be got.
Director Marshall W. Mason has streamlined the play. Gone are the servants; gone are the "no-neck monster" children who periodically intrude upon the action to little purpose. Gone is the first intermission, so that acts one and two play straight through in a tight (an adjective rarely associated with Williams) 80 minutes. When the excesses are stripped away, what remains is a kind of chamber piece for actors. In this staging all the actors serve the play well.
Some viewers might carp that gone too is Maggie's Southern accent. So what? Too many Maggies have hidden behind accents thicker than day-old grits and ignored the unattractive demands of the part. Molly Schaffer tackles Maggie head-on. As she prowls the stage, always just one step ahead of ruin and disgrace, Schaffer is a seething, sensuous mass of desperation. Most actors want to be liked, but Maggie is not particularly likable. Schaffer has guts; she doesn't cater to the audience. Her Maggie will do anything in a last-ditch attempt to heal her marriage. She cajoles, she purrs; she clutches, she claws. If through it all Schaffer is never less than beautiful, by evening's end she's not pretty. But she has delivered a powerful performance and an unsparing rendering.
Jason Kuykendall's Brick provides a strong balance. For starters, he looks as if he might have been a football player, which helps to establish the play's universe. Brick is weak, but he cannot be played by a weak actor or he'll be reduced to a mere sounding board for Maggie's marathon monologues. That's not a problem here. We can follow this Brick's trajectory into self-loathing throughout the evening. As Big Daddy, Michael McCarty is precisely what most viewers expect of the role: He's a crusty, overweight pit bull, and when he's onstage it's hard to take your eyes from him. But it wouldn't hurt if there were a little less musicality and a little more menace in his delivery.
The supporting players are also integral to the success of this cohesive production. As Big Mama, Jo Twiss is all sweetness on the exterior, but underneath her scaly jewels is a cobra ready to strike. As the dutiful yet hapless elder son Gooper, John Lepard makes an unsympathetic character eminently watchable. Mary Proctor is a marvel of polished asperity as Gooper's clutching wife, Mae. When Sister Woman Mae and Maggie the Cat are onstage together, there's a sense that for the safety of actor and viewer alike, they both need to be leashed.
According to the playbill, Mason sought to stage Cat as an "American" Greek drama. At times it seems more Romanesque, and Maggie and Brick's circular bedroom (sparely yet elegantly designed by David Potts) resembles a carpeted amphitheater in the Coliseum. But in addition to taking it into the past, Mason also moves the story into the present. The inclusion of cell phones, bottled water and electronic gadgetry is a bewildering and unnecessary distraction. Not that this change does lasting damage to the production, but to what purpose?
A more serious mistake occurs midway through Act One when the back story about Brick's suicidal friend Skipper takes front and center. It's tough enough for a viewer to sustain interest in an offstage character who is never seen. Here the problem is compounded by lots of new exposition. This is the one moment when the show's swift pace needs to slow down so the audience can absorb what's being said, yet Mason keeps Maggie moving. You can feel viewers tuning out.
Ultimately how a production handles Skipper is the litmus test for what it's trying to say. Is Brick a closet homosexual in self-denial? Or is there a place for pure male love in a sullied world? Because Williams is a poet rather than a polemicist, he refuses to tell the audience precisely what to think. But he gives audiences much to think about. Those who take their theater seriously will find much to chew on in this solid and satisfying Rep staging.
Paul Rudnick is another breed of cat altogether. Tennessee Williams was gay, but his plays speak to everyone. Rudnick has turned his gayness into a cash-cow franchise. He is a funny guy, but his message gets a little repetitious: Gay is good. No, it's better than good; it's fabulous!
Valhalla is more than fabulous; it's manic. It's two plays for the price of one. The conceit here is to show parallels between Ludwig of Bavaria, whose apparently foolish nineteenth-century life was devoted to building extravagant castles and going to the opera, and a fictional character, the voraciously bisexual James Avery. James, who is the scourge of Dainsville, Texas, back in the 1930s and '40s, doesn't seem to be devoted to much of anything beyond self-gratification.
How to approach such eclectic material that is as much an extended vaudeville revue as it is a play? For this HotCity Theatre production, director (and Riverfront Times theater critic) Deanna Jent began by assembling a cast of extremely accomplished actors. Terry Meddows is the endearingly pathetic Ludwig. To watch Meddows create an empathetic character even as he is navigating a minefield of one-line jokes is to be reminded of what a deft performer he is. Why Meddows isn't working regularly at the Rep, or on Broadway, is a mystery worthy of Elmore Leonard. When Meddows is cavorting onstage with the gifted Gary Wayne Barker, viewers are seeing the best that St. Louis has to offer.
Another of the evening's memorable scenes occurs when Ludwig encounters a wisecracking humpback princess who has more curves than Maggie the Cat; she just has them in the wrong places. Rory Lipede is a delight as Princess Sophie. Over the past two years Lipede has developed palpable assurance as an actress. Sophie is but one of five roles she plays in Valhalla, and she enacts them with range and individuality.
Andy Neiman is persuasive as hell-raising James, and Blaine Smith is charmingly effective as Henry Lee, the love of James' life. Yet despite the sincerity of their performances, there is a sense that the contemporary plot has been insinuated into the script. It has little life of its own other than to mirror Ludwig. When James and Henry Lee find themselves overseas in World War II, the writing is so thin as to remind one of Rudnick's campy scenes in the Vietnam movie-within-a-movie in In & Out -- the difference being that in In & Out the scenes were clearly a lampoon; here it's hard to know what to make of them.
In the final analysis, it's hard to know what to make of Valhalla too. Last weekend anyway, all the presumably humorous references to boners and nipples paled next to the eloquent dialogue of Tennessee Williams. (Of course, 50 years ago most theatergoers thought Williams was prurient too.) As Act Two spins into the realm of the fantastical, audiences will either embrace the play's uniqueness or think it's imploding before their very eyes. But about one thing there can be little dispute: You're sure to have a better time if you like the music of Wagner.