Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Raven Theatre Company

Jason Huysman and
Liz Fletcher

One of Tennessee Williams' most popular plays (along with The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof seems perhaps the easiest of the three to watch. It lacks the gut-wrenching loneliness of Menagerie or the utter despair of Streetcar. While none of the characters in these three plays bear much outward similarity to present-day Midwesterners like Chicago audiences, it's easier to view the Pollitt family of Cat from a distance than the families of the two earlier plays.

The nouveau-riche Pollitts, living on the sort of Mississippi plantation that Blanche DuBois lost in Streetcar, seem specifically of another place and era, with their problems the sort of issues that seem so much more important to the wealthy: keeping up appearances, sustaining the family, and holding on to their wealth. The patriarch "Big Daddy" is about to celebrate his 60th birthday with the knowledge it will be his last, amid doubts that his favored son Brick will be able to carry on the family name and maintain its wealth. Brick, grieving the loss of his closest friend, has sunk into alcoholism while the women of the family—matriarch "Big Mama" and Brick's wife Maggie seek only to maintain some appearance of normalcy. The Pollitts are exotic creatures and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has some meaty roles that its actors can savor, even as it seems the play itself is a high-class soap, with enough wickedly funny barbs and big dramatic moments to keep the audience entertained.

There may be more to it than that, but it would up to the actors to suggest more subtext than Williams provided. Brick is at the center of the play, but he's a cipher ... barely communicative and revealing little more than his disgust with the "mendacity" all around him in the family's desire to keep up appearances. It's up to us to decide if Brick's loss of his friend Skipper is due to Skipper's death or to Skipper's admission that he was a homosexual. Or is Brick grieving his own loss of a self-identification as straight and facing the possibility he had a gay attraction to Skipper? Director Michael Mendendian's cast doesn't do as well in unlocking these secrets as they do in just having fun with these over-the-top southerners.

The first act is nearly a monologue by the chatty Maggie, and Liz Fletcher delivers the lines barely taking a breath. Fletcher shows us that Maggie is no airhead, but a wily girl who has married into wealth, to a handsome former football star at that, and is not about to give all that up. Fletcher falls a little short, though, in convincing us of the full extent of Maggie's steeliness as she comes up with the solution that will make everything seem to be all right. As Brick, Jason Huysman is a believable drunk, with a wry air of resignation and retreat from the reality around him. He gives no particular point of view as to what Brick is actually hiding from, though. Joanne Montemurro has a field day playing the loud-mouthed Big Mama, who tries to maintain some control over the family and stage-manage appearances. Big Mama is a colorful character whose motivations are more readily apparent than those of Maggie and Brick, so subtext is not so much of an issue with her.

Big Daddy is the meatiest role of all, and Jon Steinhagen, though probably some twenty years younger than his character, provides a strong presence as the patriarch. He captures Big Daddy's fears, rages and regrets quite satisfyingly. The supporting characters of Gooper, Mae, Reverend Tooker and Dr. Baugh are played comically and appropriately one-dimensionally by Greg Caldwell, Eleanor Katz, Mike Boone, and Jonathan Nichols.

The action plays out on an ingenious and realistic peach/pink set by Ray Toler. It's a detailed representation of Maggie and Brick's bedroom, complete with bathroom and closet. The corner of a hallway is visible for some speeches on the hallway telephone and there's a see-through wall that gives us a look at the "gallery" (we'd call it a porch) that figures prominently in the action. Toler's set, along with the 1950s elegance of Mina Hyun-Ok Hong's costumes, clearly establishes the world of the play as a sort of "Dynasty"-like soap opera universe. Menendian and company might have gone for more than that, but what they've done provides some fun.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof will play through December 19, 2010, at the Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St., Chicago. Tickets and information are available at or 773-338-2177.

Photo: Dean LaPrairie

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