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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

by Dolores W. Gregory

Jeremy Davidson as an aptly "hunky"  Brick and George Grizzard as Big Daddy
Jeremy Davidson as an aptly "hunky" Brick and George Grizzard as Big Daddy (Photo: Joan Marcus )
The Kennedy Center continues its exploration of Tennessee Williams' major works with a production of the playwright's second Pulitzer Prize-winner, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Though marred by the miscasting of Mary Stuart Masterson as the sensuous Maggie, this lush production more than compensates with a phenomenal performance by George Grizzard as the coarse but self-important plantation owner, Big Daddy.

For the better part of an hour, Grizzard owns the stage as a self-made man whose lifelong accomplishments seem trivial in the face of cancer. But having received a stay of execution---the doctor has declared his stomach ailment a mere bout of "spastic colon"--- Big Daddy has decided to live like never before. He has no more patience for the niceties of life---such as being polite to his annoying wife (Dana Ivey) or concealing his contempt for his spineless elder son (T. Scott Cunningham)---and Big Daddy is determined to get to the bottom of a brewing family crisis: the apparent inability of his cherished younger son, Brick (Jeremy Davidson), to father a child with Maggie.

The entire story plays out in Maggie and Brick's bedroom, where, for some time now, the couple have been sleeping in separate beds. This secret, however, is no secret at all. Brick's mother, Big Mama, has installed his older brother, Gooper, and Gooper's wife, Mae (Emily Skinner), in the room next door, where they have been eavesdropping on the ongoing battle. The pregnant Mae, swelled to bursting with her sixth child, is thrilled to impart the sordid details to her mother-in-law, for despite the doctor's optimistic diagnosis of Big Daddy, Mae and Gooper are hoping to wrestle control of the family assets away from the heir apparent, Brick.

As in other works by Williams, themes of repressed homosexuality, Southern hypocrisy, and the bitter limitations of lives stymied by social convention surface here and are given a thorough going over in three acts of poetry and improbability. The language is sublime and the motivations obscure in a story that seems not to have worn all that well since its Broadway launch in 1950. But the "so what?" factor that surfaces early on in Act One might be more a function of the complete lack of chemistry between Masterson and Davidson, however, than of any shortcomings in the text.

Act One ought to be a sexually taut battle of wills between a frustrated, lonely wife and her terrified husband, a man who retreats to the bottle to swamp his feelings of sexual inadequacy. It is instead a rather flat exercise. Masterson is out of place in the steamy world of Williams' American South. Despite her Mississippi Delta drawl and her best efforts to sprawl sexily across the bed when the line warrants, virtually everything Maggie says seems to ring false. You simply don't believe that this is a woman whose husband has rejected her because he blames her for the death of his friend and, it is implied, would-be lover.

For a lesson in how to inhabit a character thoroughly, Masterson might study Grizzard's performance in the second act. Grizzard is an actor frequently cast as thinkers and intellectuals---he has a recurring role as a crafty attorney on Law & Order---but he wears his earthy swagger with complete ease. There is nothing false about this man: Big Daddy is a man who has worked his way up, literally, through back-breaking labor, and if he cannot understand hesitation or introspection, it is only because he has no practical use for such luxuries. Yet---at a time when he desperately needs to connect with his son--- words fail him. He talks in circles, repeating himself without knowing it, revealing the raw nerve of fear that lies beneath his bluster. In his flailing efforts to achieve some kind of understanding with the son who confounds him, Grizzard shows us the pathos that sparks his brutality. In Big Daddy, Williams exposes the fundamental paradox of family life---- the emotional need for love and approval that drives one equally to resentment and contempt.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Mark Lamos
With Mary Stuart Masterson, Jeremy Davidson, Emily Skinner, Dana Ivey, Aakhu TuahNera Freeman, Nathan Pratt, Lexi Haddad, N. Justin Hancock, Erin Elizabeth Wall, Caitlin Redding, George Grizzard, T. Scott Cunningham, Harry A. Winter, Brian Reddy, Jeorge Watson
Scenic Design by John Lee Beatty
Costumes by Jane Greenwood
Lighting by Howell Binkley
Sound by John Gromada
Fight Choreography by Brad Waller
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Telephone (202)-467-4600 or (800) 444-1324
Opened June 12, 2004, closes July 4, 2004. Reviewed by Dolores W. Gregory June 19 based on a June 17 performance.
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