Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Tennessee Williams' 1955 Pulitzer prize-winning masterpiece, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, currently playing at Portland (OR) Center Stage until April 4, 2004, pullulates with themes of loss, deception, vitriol, bitterness, lust, resentment, intrigue and numbing loneliness. The play is full of talk, but little actual communication takes place between and among characters. Tangled webs of relationships ensnare the six major characters, and whatever semblance of family concord that formerly existed comes crashing down unceremoniously at the 65th birthday party of Big Daddy, the patriarch of the family.
The intensity of the play begins within the first few seconds as Maggie, wife of Brick and daughter-in-law of Big Daddy and Big Momma, launches into a rambling soliloquoy to Brick about life, love, and social position. Brick's means of dealing with the verbal onslaught is to drink himself into oblivion, until the "click" happens in his brain and he can find a "quiet place." But Brick doesn't seek escape just from his wife's screeds; he also wants to numb the pain of the past, a past that saw him star in football at "Ole Miss" but also saw him injured before the big game. He had to content himself with watching everyone play without him. He also drinks in order to dull the sharp agony of the loss of his best friend Skipper by suicide, a suicide that may have been related to the unexplained relationship of some intimacy between Skipper and Brick. Life, for Brick, is full of "disgust" because people are full of "mendacity."
But his wife Maggie, who has not yet borne a child for Brick, is playing for higher stakes. Big Daddy has been diagnosed with cancer, though the family has only told him that he has a "spastic colon," and he wants to bequeath his fortune of $10 million and 28,000 of the finest acres in the Delta either to Brick or his older son Gooper. Gooper is a dutiful but unloved son, married to Mae and father of five (soon to be six) children, whom Maggie refers to as "no necked monsters."
At the aforementioned party, the layers of family bitterness come to the surface. Big Daddy, who thinks he is "in the clear" medically, insults Big Momma and tells her that he can't stand her. Big Daddy and Brick talk at length about Brick's lack of ambition, Big Daddy's accomplishments and the questionable relationship Brick enjoyed with his friend Skipper. Seething resentment and physical confrontation result. Some of the conversation is overheard by the anxious Mae, who bursts in to try to get in her two cents about why Gooper and she should inherit from Big Daddy, but he brusquely throws her out of the room. Finally, when passions rise almost to the breaking point Brick tells Big Daddy the news that everyone has concealed from him: that he is dying of cancer.
Intense scene follows intense scene. Just when one thinks that the deception cannot continue, Maggie represents to Big Daddy that she is pregnant by Brick. Mae is beside herself with anger because she has eavesdropped on the intimate relations of Maggie and Brick and knows that Maggie cannot be pregnant.
The agony continues until the final seconds of the play. In that scene, where Brick and Maggie are on the bed together, Maggie tells Brick that it is her fertile time of the month (obviously she lied to Big Daddy about being pregnant) and that all she needs is for Brick to help her now in becoming pregnant. Though usually the potential birth of a child brings joy or hope even in the midst of death (how many young couples discover they are pregnant when a parent has been diagnosed with a fatal illness?), here one immediately hopes, for the sake of the family and the future child, that Maggie does not get pregnant. The endless cycle of resentment, bitterness and intrigue would no doubt continue.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a riveting drama, with powerful performances especially by Jim Peck as Big Daddy, Joann Johnson as Big Momma and Brandy Zarle as Maggie. While offering no apparently redemptive theme, the play's musings about love (the two male leads wonder "Wouldn't it be something if it [their wives' apparent love for them] were true?) gently suggest that though it is not an easy key to lead them out of their emotional prisons, it is a quality which might still have a word to say in defining their futures.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long