Shakespeare aside, was any playwright more generous to actors than Tennessee Williams? A master of metrical speech, he mixed iams and dactyls with a poet's love of concatenation. His words smolder, then linger in the air like aromatic tobacco, leaving only a blue haze. His best plays have lyrical soliloquies, imploding passion and gothic family dynamics.
In the HotHouse Theatre production of the 1955 classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof actress Donna M. Parroné, who plays Maggie, is the only person onstage who consistently gets what Williams is about and has genuine affection for the character she's playing. This counts for a lot, given that Act 1 of this epic drama is virtually a nonstop monologue by Maggie, punctuated only by flaccid protestations by her alcoholic husband, Brick. He's been laid up with a sprained ankle, reliving his glory days as a football star and slowly marinating his brain with alcohol in search of the elusive "click" that tells him he's had enough. He and Maggie have come to Brick's ancestral home, a sprawling plantation, to celebrate Big Daddy's birthday. Also present are less-favored older brother Gooper, wife Mae and their offspring, the "no-neck monsters." Dramatic tension emanates from virtually every relationship -- father/son, husband/wife -- because all are affected by news that autocratic Big Daddy has just been pronounced cancer-free. Or has he? Jealousy, sexual frustration, closeted homosexuality (Brick's relationship with the mysterious Skipper) and plain avarice make for a thick stew of recriminations, with plenty of cliff-hangers, in three generous acts.
However, to judge from the hokiness of some of the performances, director Carolyne Hood isn't sure whether this is high tragedy or evening soap. She's exceptionally fortunate to have Parroné. This Maggie is a blond Valkyrie, well-upholstered in a creamy slip. There are wit and sex appeal in just about everything she says, though her projection occasionally fails. (Then again, she has dozens of pages.) Happily, Parroné has full control of the scenes she's in, although she has very little to play against.
Williams envisioned Brick as a lovely wreck. He's a retired pro-football player-turned-announcer -- a brute whose sexual rejection of the lubricious Maggie is meant to shock. Chopper Leifheit plays Brick as if he were, well, a stick -- perhaps a reed. It's not the actor's fault he's exceedingly thin and lacking physical menace a larger man might have. Leifheit spits out his lines as if even he can't wait for Parroné to begin seducing/berating him again, but it's not enough. And when he attacks Maggie and the no-neck monsters break in, Leifheit rattles off the beautifully metered line "I tried to kill your Aunt Maggie, and I failed, and I fell" with no savor. That's a moment where Brick is humanized, but not here.
Almost as disappointing is Christopher Limber's Big Daddy, and, again, this is just a question of casting. Limber is large, which is good, and he's got a baritone, which is better. Yet he's young, and he plays Big Daddy as young -- the body language is all wrong, and he doesn't have the triumph or the rage that this vicious old bully would have. As Big Mama, Sally Eaton is both too addled and not quite smarmy enough. Only near the end of the reviewed performance, when Big Mama loses her temper with the eldest son, does the actress get a grip on the tempo. And what is Hood trying to do with Liz Guthrie as Mae? This is a terrific part for an actress who can play short-sighted and scheming (think Karen Black), but Guthrie's shrieking (and contemporary hair and maternity dress) are cartoonish. She is most tolerable when wrangling the insufferably successful monsters. Marty Stanberry has convincing sleaze as Gooper, but Bob Koerner and Russell J. Bettlach as minister and doctor, respectively, do nothing with well-scripted cameos (the Roman collar was inexcusable and inexplicable).
The entire play takes place in Brick and Maggie's bed-sitting room, a theatrical detail that increases the sense of claustrophobia. At HotHouse, this is a large, underdecorated space, with free-standing doorways meant to indicate exits. As plantation digs, it's a touch sparse, and why give Brick a ludicrously small (and squeaky) wicker couch, too small to sleep on? Then again, if you're going to neglect the musicality of Williams' essential syllables, a set's just another area to overlook. Yet, despite these flaws, Williams' drama and the hardworking HotHouse production are pretty much enthralling from first to last.