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Friday, May 1, 2015


John Aylward and Brandon O'Neill as Big Daddy and Brick
Photo: Chris Bennion
If “Big Daddy,” the profane and crude, but truthful, patriarch of the wealthy southern family in the play  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, actually existed, he would no doubt approve of my need to "tell it like it is" in this review. He never held back on his opinions. A production of this Tennessee Williams play runs April 17-May 17, 2015 at ACT-A Contemporary Theatre in Seattledirected by Kurt Beattie. The best thing about it is actor John Aylward's gutsy, powerful performance in the "Big Daddy" role. He gives this show some fine dramatic moments when little else does. 

Imagine a soap opera set in the Mississippi delta in the 1950s. On Big Daddy’s birthday, his eldest son and two daughters-in-law try too hard to win his favor, knowing what he himself does not yet know, that he is dying of cancer and will soon leave behind his 28,000-acre estate. The eldest son, bland and boring Gooper (Charles Leggett) and Gooper’s overly talkative and once-again-pregnant wife Mae (Morgan Rowe) have produced a next generation of annoying children to carry on the family name, while the younger, favorite son, Brick (Brandon O’Neill), a former star athlete, and his wife, Maggie (Laura Griffith) have not. It’s difficult to make babies when you don’t have sex. 

Brandon O'Neill as Brick Solo with Drink
Photo: Chris Bennion 
They don’t have sex, because Brick is an alcoholic who has turned his back on the family dramas and the marital bed. He just can’t quit mourning the death of his best and one true friend, whom his wife believes was his lover. Whether or not this was true remains a mystery. He denies it, both to himself and to her, and also to his father who, rough as he is, turns out to be far more open-minded and accepting than one might expect, especially during the 1950s. 

“Why is it so damn hard for people to talk?” Big Daddy asks Brick, although he seems to be asking the universe instead. His question expresses one of the play’s main ideas—that honest and genuine communication is often rare or impossible in families. The irony though, is that the very man who asks the question never stops talking long enough to let his son have a chance to open up to him. Brick’s best attempt is when he exclaims, “We’ve always just talked around things!” None of this leads anywhere. 

Maggie held up by a child        Photo: Chris Bennion
I grew frustrated with characters who, caught up in their own denial and self-absorption, never seem to change, grow, or learn. Where is the journey, the quest, the lesson? Obviously, Williams wrote this out of his own pain. Like this troubled family, he pulled the little bead chain on the attic light bulb to reveal all the cobwebs and broken, dusty things families hide but will never discard. Unfortunately, no one deals with the mess, leaving us in limbo without hope or satisfaction.

I kept waiting for the real Brick to emerge, but soon saw, and became bored with, the sameness of his monotone talk and behavior. Although basically drunk throughout the entire play, O’Neill did not act drunk enough or sober enough to thoroughly convince me of either state. He became emotional only briefly with his wife and again when he tangled with his father, in the second act. Brick’s scenes with Maggie lacked the chemistry that could have created a delicious tension. These characters were each victims, in their own way, but the actors portraying them did not make them win my sympathies.

In true soap opera fashion, unsatisfied sexual desire keeps company with resentment, jealousy, manipulation, fatal illness, competition, and, most of all, deception, creating a family so dysfunctional it will make most people relieved to know their own is not as bad. For three hours, the play examines all the reasons these people are miserable. It makes you laugh at times, possibly squirm at other times, care about some characters (but not much), despise others, and feel compassion, so is moderately successful in those ways. 

Laura Griffith solo on the bed         Photo: Chris Bennion 

The “Cat” herself, Maggie, has an impressive number of lines to say in the first act, as she nervously paces around the bedroom, dressed only in a slip. Her physical acting was good, but I wanted Griffith to s-l-o-w  d-o-w-n her lines, take an occasional breath, and deliver them with a pacing and style that could seduce, not pummel. My husband compared it to a blues record played at the wrong speed, with the words all right but the timing all wrong. Sure, she was frustrated and upset, wanted to make a point, relentlessly campaigning to get her husband back in her bed, both for her own satisfaction and to produce a child. But Griffith’s delivery did not match her sultry appearance and reminded me of something I’ve heard men say—that even the sexiest looking woman can be a turn-off if she never shuts up. 

The audience loved to laugh out loud at Big Daddy’s wife, Big Mama (Marianne Owen), a woman who seemed dressed and directed purposely to remind you of Edith Bunker in the television show “All in the Family” but far less intelligent. Worse than Archie’s treatment of Edith, Big Daddy’s distain for his wife implies a deeper issue than her weight and aging appearance (no worse than his own) and her admittedly irritating manner. Why she loves him, and she truly does, is a mystery, but her heartache over his looming death is real. 

Gooper and Mae, once they know the old man is dying, waste no time trying to take control and rob Big Mama of what little power she has. Owen made me feel compassion for her character, revealing a woman with complex emotions and loyalties. Owen excelled in the emotional scene where Big Mama learns the truth about her husband’s health. It bothered me that so many others in the audience seemed to see her only as laughable.

 Morgan Rowe and Charles Leggett              Photo: Chris Bennion 

Charles Leggett did well enough in his role of Gooper, as did Morgan Rowe as Mae, but neither impressed me as much as they both have in other plays. As despicable as their characters were, they still served to remind us of some ugly truths—parents can and do play favorites, with devastating affect, and every family has someone waiting to collect an inheritance. 

The staging of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at ACT has historical significance in that ACT presented this play during its first season, 50 years ago. Director Kurt Beattie greeted the audience on opening night and mentioned that he made his debut as a professional actor there in 1975. He called the play “an enduring American classic.” So it seems, but enduring the production I saw was a classic case of going into something expecting and wanting to love it, like I do most plays at ACT, but never reaching that state. In spite a proven old recipe, this piece of southern cornbread just wasn’t hot enough to melt my butter.

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