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Life and death in the Deep South
The Walnut presents Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
The title of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof refers to Maggie the Cat, who exudes feral energy to preserve her dying marriage. But after seeing Walnut Street Theatre’s current production, I’d like to propose a new name for this classic: Big Daddy’s Blues.
Although he doesn’t appear until the second of the play’s three acts, the arrival of Big Daddy Pollitt—Maggie’s father-in-law, and overseer of “28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile”—turbocharges the proceedings. As played by Scott Greer with customary bravado and admirable emotional depth, his presence elevates this new staging from good to great.
The material itself, which nabbed Williams his second Pulitzer Prize in 1955, is great on its own, mind you. Even from a 2023 purview, the candor the script brings to topics like homosexuality, alcoholism, and mortality feels shockingly frank. At a time when cancer was still considered a taboo subject, Williams presented Big Daddy’s impending death with gravity, terror, and directness.
These qualities persist in Bernard Havard’s serviceable but largely ordinary treatment. The jarring first act—in which Maggie (Alanna Smith) hectors her husband Brick (Matthew Amira) to stop drinking, while sticking her finger in the sore of his unusually close relationship with a deceased male friend—barely plays like innuendo. Maggie and Brick’s confrontations, and later the sparring between Brick and Big Daddy, show how casual cruelty can be normalized within a family dynamic.
Yet the interactions between Maggie and Brick don’t catch fire as they should. Smith brings an appropriately driven energy to her characterization of a poor girl who clawed her way out of poverty using the tools available to her, although she has a habit of delivering her lines directly to the audience, rather than to her scene partner. Amira, who played Rocky Balboa in the Walnut’s season-opening musical offering, responds to her salacious accusations by rote, as if reading from cue cards.
The sparks between them don’t strike, so the shock factor seems a little wary. To compensate, dim lighting cues and ominous background music signal what the acting should—that a momentous moment or tense revelation is about to occur. (Shon Causer designed the lighting, and Christopher Colucci the sound.)
Big Daddy’s final word
But when Greer arrives on Roman Tatarowicz’s handsomely appointed set—insulting everyone in his path, as if harsh words and a puffed chest could ward off death—the audience understands what Williams so often conveyed in his works: that violence and fear walk hand-in-hand, and that even the most odious character contains surprising depths. Although Greer is a full decade younger than the 65-year-old patriarch, his pugnacious bearing and slightly whitened facial hair utterly convince of his authority. Playing opposite him for the majority of the second act, Amira’s performance gains in depth.
Among the supporting cast, some performances work (Wendy Scharfman’s soft-grained take on Big Mama). Others don’t (Alicia Roper’s stereotypical read on Mae, Maggie’s perennially pregnant sister-in-law). Others seem like they’d be better suited to a different production (David Bardeen’s broadly comic Gooper, Brick’s conniving brother). Perhaps owing to attenuated rehearsal time, there is little stylistic cohesion among the ensemble cast.
At the end of a long and fraught evening, Maggie gets the final word, and Williams ends the drama with the assumption that she’ll keep scrapping along. But I left thinking about the person who won’t survive, but who was determined to harness all his might for one final showdown. Make no mistake: this is Big Daddy’s show.
What, When, Where
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. By Tennessee Williams, directed by Bernard Havard. $25-$175. Through March 12, 2023, at Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 574-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org.
Masks are not required.
Walnut Street Theatre is an ADA-compliant venue, with wheelchair seating and assisted-listening devices available for all performances. There will be an open-captioned performance of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Sunday, March 5, at 7pm.
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