The Vex’s revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof mines Brick’s repression
The Vexler opens the New Year with a compelling, if occasionally over-the-top, performance of the Tennessee Williams classic Cat on Hot Tin Roof. Starring America’s most famously screwed-up family after the Simpsons, Cat details one long day’s journey into dysfunction, featuring a dying, imperious patriarch (Big Daddy), a desperate, deluded matriarch (Big Mama), and a snarling, sexually repressed son (Big Homo). Censored in its famous Elizabeth Taylor-Paul Newman screen adaptation, this Cat lays bare an evening of a thousand secrets, as a Southern dynasty gathers to celebrate Big Daddy’s final birthday on his sprawling Mississippi estate.
|Mindy Feedham as Maggie and Victor Treviño as Brick, in the Vexler Theater's production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)|
As in most of Williams’ plays, nothing really happens: The key events have already occurred off-stage. In this case, it’s the death of favorite-son Brick’s “best friend” Skipper, a casualty that sends Brick into a tailspin of drink and flaccidness — much to the chagrin of Brick’s sex-starved wife, Maggie. The nature of Brick’s relationship with Skipper is never made explicit, but it’s a good bet that the play could be reworked as Brokeback Plantation. Virtually unique among Williams’ plays, however, is a double-plot, in which Brick and Maggie’s failure to have sex — much less produce an heir — dovetails with the imminent death by cancer of Big Daddy. Eros and thanatos are thereby linked to the delight of graduate students everywhere.
Cat on a hot tin roof
Through Feb 25
$13 senior, military;
The Vexler Theater
12500 NW Military
For all the histrionics on stage, what makes the evening so wrenching is Williams’ unerring ear for the cruelties we, as humans, so effortlessly perpetrate. After a grueling second-act quarrel, Big Mama explains, in disarmingly simple terms, what has cemented her decades-long relationship to Big Daddy: “I even loved your hatred and your hardness.” Well, there you have it: If a marriage can survive on hatred and hardness, why bother with flowers and World’s Best Mama mugs? Both Art Peden (as Big Daddy) and Laurie Fitzpatrick (a.k.a. Big Mama) play their parts with big, grand strokes, though perhaps with too much fulminating from Peden. Big Daddy doesn’t need to raise his voice to bludgeon you to bits.
But as gripping as one might find the crack-up of the Big Parental Units, the evening truly belongs to Brick, Maggie, and, in a sense, poor, dead Skipper. As Brick, Victor Treviño is actually muscled like a brick; when he first makes his stage entrance clad only in a towel, the effect on the audience (and its New Year’s gym resolutions) is electric. Treviño’s an excellent actor, able to negotiate the confusing mental space between Brick’s alcohol-fueled surliness and his touching meltdown with Big Daddy. As Maggie, Mindy Feedham gives an inspired performance as the eponymous cat on a hot tin roof: too miserable to stay but too stubborn to jump. As the play explores her frustrated sexual impulses, Maggie slinks around the stage like a cat in heat, ready to drop another dysfunctional litter. Treviño and Feedham’s long opening scene is the finest in the play, softer and thus in a sense more affecting than the slugfest of Act 2. As Brick’s older brother, Gooper, Patrick Donnelly gives a quiet, assured performance, though Lindsey Van de Kirk, as the perpetually sneering sister-in-law, Mae, comes across as rather one-note. Smaller roles and a gaggle of kiddies/kitties round out the cast.
The design team is strong. Ken Frazier has contributed a characteristically elegant set, and Greg Hinojosa’s sly costumes deck out both Maggie and Mae in warm fertility-symbol prints. Jim Mammarella’s deft direction choreographs Brick’s endless orbits to the liquor bar. Last Thursday’s preview saw a few bobbles with lines, and a single wardrobe malfunction (fortunately not of the Janet Jackson variety) was handled with grace by both Treviño and Feedham.
Though I was originally dubious (and still am) about the merits of programming an entire season of classics, the Vexler has proven that this play, at least, deserved its Alamo City revival. Let’s hope in the future, however, that the Vexler programs some of Williams’ hipper, more contemporary heirs, such as Christopher Durang, Nicky Silver, even Paula Vogel. If dysfunction’s your bag, there are more good plays of the 21st century than you can swing a Cat at. •