By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
There’s something to be said when a major New Orleans staple like Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is able to been seen with a new wrinkle. The Pulitzer Prize winning play set on a Mississippi Delta plantation is now on the boards at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré. While the second and concluding third acts have been combined to speed up the work , director Salvatore Mannino chose to use Williams’ rarely-performed first iteration of Act III. So, to be accurate, this might better be termed an old wrinkle.
On more than one occasion, the revised version written with original director Elia Kazan was castigated by the playwright as having been too commercial. But he kept his greatest vitriol for the film version and its “hopeful” ending that strongly suggested Paul Newman’s Brick might well patch things up with Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie. Williams reportedly chased away movie goers in line to see the picture, remarking it was a terrible film.
Mannino did remove several of Williams’ more salacious references with this production as a way of making the work a bit more antiseptic and palatable for Le Petit audiences and he largely succeeds with his choices. There is, of course, a counter argument that removing such references smacks of the very mendacity Williams bemoans in Act II. Williams intended to assault his audience with words and descriptions that spoke to his concept of the truth. Avoiding their mention does not make them go away nor does it diminish their veracity.
By selecting seasoned veteran Jonathan Mares as Brick, Mannino made an unexpected, but welcome selection. Mares, an actor who had also ventured into work as an independent producer in recent years, plays Brick as an aloof, reserved and tortured dipsomaniac. He drinks to excess to find the click in his head that turns off his digust with life and the lies the surround him and his family, not the least of which is his icy relationship with his wanton wife Margaret, aka “Maggie the Cat.”
Another unexpected choice for Maggie is Mona Nasrawi, a young actress recently seen in several recent New Orleans Shakespeare productions and featured in two of the final productions at Southern Rep. Williams intended Maggie to possess a poetic song quality to her long rambling passages in Act I. While she was a bit tentative at the beginning of that act on opening night, she eventually warmed to the role and was largely a charming presence on stage.
The dynamic between Margaret (“Maggie”) and Brick is at the heart of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and no matter how Hollywood screenwriters or Broadway directors feel, there is no reason to romanticize their relationship as one that offers a glimmer of hope or a scintilla of the possibility of reconciliation.
Naswari does depict the desperation of Maggie very well. Of the two, she is the more sober partner, but she is drunk with unfulfilled passion for her husband. Between drinks, Brick’s admissions to Maggie indicate he can only cope with having to be with her through the administration of alcohol. The larger issue between the two of them – that of the ghost of Skipper – has yet to be resolved and may never be resolved. The pair’s actions both contributed to Skipper’s demise and there’s plenty of guilt to be shared by husband and wife alike.
There are two other married couples in the Pollitt mansion that are also integral to the play. They are the patriarch, Big Daddy (Silas Cooper), who is celebrating his 65th birthday, and matriarch Big Mama (Elizabeth Argus) and their older son Gooper (Nick Strauss) and his pregnant wife Mae (Diana Shortes). Director Mannino opted to use just one actor, Yvette Bourgeois, to play Dixie and represent the brood of the latter couple’s five children. Dixie is also seen early in the first scene as an adult observer, serving as a symbolic device to echo the disfunction of the family through her memory.
Everyone is dealing with the crisis of a major health scare for Big Daddy. Despite his suspicions otherwise, Big Daddy has been given a report that suggests he is in good health and his spirits are lifted high enough for him to stop contemplating death, to distance himself from his wife and to confront his son over his drinking and the apparent abandonment of his wife.
Over the course of the second act, Big Daddy and Brick enjoy an extended and sometimes violent confrontation over the latter’s rampant alcoholism and the suggestion that his lack of desire for Maggie may be rooted in something far more disturbing. Through the haze of his drinking, Brick becomes more focused as his father digs deeper at what he suspects may be the real cause.
At first, Cooper embodies Big Daddy with an understated performance that rises to an emotional crescendo in Act II. Brick initially confounds his father before he eventually explodes into rage when challenged about his relationship with Skipper. As Brick, Mares shows he can go punch for punch with Cooper’s Big Daddy, but he is usually too apathetic and too drunk to challenge him in most cases. It is important to note that Williams never allows Brick to become a sloppy drunk. He is rife with manners, respectfully addressing his father as the charged level between the two resonates quite effectively.
As Big Mama, Elizabeth Argus displays her ability to own a dramatic role and place her own stamp upon it. She plays the vainglorious and naive matron quite well in her scenes with the others. After more than 40 years of marriage, she is unaware of how much she is held in contempt by her husband or tolerated by her family members for what Williams terms her being “inelegant.”
A newcomer to the Crescent City, Nick Strauss plays well as Gooper opposite longtime local actor Diana Shortes as Mae. Both Big Daddy and Big Mama recognize Gooper and Mae have rapacious designs on the family fortune and spend little time safeguarding the knowledge they prefer the intoxicated and childless Brick as the presumed heir over his older, sober brother and his family.
Mae believes her parcel of kids and her present pregnant condition give her and Gooper an advantage in what she sees as a race to the finish line, the prize of which is Big Daddy’s “28,000 acres of the best land west of the Nile.” Having both been the products of Tennessee debuts, Mae and Maggie are aware of each other’s upbringing and shortcomings. Mae may plot to gain the upper hand, but none of her in-laws will yield to her schemes and Maggie is especially alert to her scheming.
The interplay Shortes has with Naswari and Argus is brilliant and reflects well on Williams’ unparalleled ability to write women’s characters like Mae, Maggie and Big Mama so well and to express their motivations so expertly.
David Sellers as Reverend Tooker and John Wettermark as Doctor Baugh fill in the only other roles present on stage during the course of the play with a combined second and third acts.
Joey Moro does double duty tackling both the airy and functional set design and the very effective lighting design for the production. His designs perfectly captured Williams’ notes for the original production and allowed for video projections by Stefania Bulbarella to complement his work.
Tyler Kieffer’s sound designs were also excellent with superb costume designs by Bridget Ann Boyle and wig and hair designs by Laurin Hart.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (2 hours and 50 minutes) by Tennessee Williams and directed by Salvatore Mannino continues at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré, 616 St. Peter St. in New Orleans, LA. and is now extended through April 2. Nightly performances (Thursday – Saturday) are at 7:30 p.m. Sunday matinees (and Sat., March 18) are at 3:00 p.m. For tickets, click here or call 504-522-2081.