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Chicago by John Olson

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
The Hypocrites

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
John Byrnes and Jennifer Grace
Near the end of the first act at the performance I attended, John Byrnes as Brick was striking at Jennifer Grace's Maggie with his crutch, and he hit one of the bare light bulbs hanging from the flies, sending shards of glass into the audience and drawing blood from Byrnes' face. Intentional? Director Sean Graney and his cast deliver such intense, honest and realistic performances that it was hard to know for sure until I asked at intermission. It was an accident. As committed as they are to honesty, I'm sure they wouldn't have put the audience at risk of physical harm in the name of art, and Byrnes' suffered the only injury. Ironically, the show's Playbill-like program, "Footlights Magazine," carried a story by Lawrence Bommer about breaking the fourth wall!

This was only my second Hypocrites show, in spite of the fact that they've been recognized as one of the hot young companies for a few years now. As in my first, their 2003 production of Balm in Gilead, Graney has shown an incredible skill for realism. He has his cast underplay the script where the script allows it, and maintain an easy, natural pace that never seems forced. Graney also displays the skill he showed in Gilead for using overlapping dialogue to naturalistic effect. With Cat, he achieves a balance between realism and Tennessee Williams' poeticism that grounds Williams' flights into operatic expressions of emotion, helping us accept it as honesty rather than the campy excess it could be in less capable hands. When the script demands a more hysterical approach the cast has plenty of room to rise to it and the higher emotional level is entirely earned.

The balance of realism and poeticism in the performances is matched and aided by the production design as well. Geoff Curley's realistic set establishes the Victorian-styled bedroom/sitting room as described by author Williams through authentic-looking doors and arches at each of the four corners of The Building Stage's in-the-round space and mid-century furnishings, like a radio and drink cart, by prop designer Nate Crawford set the period as late '40s/early '50s. Complementing this realism with a more impressionistic approach are the color schemes of Alison Siple's costumes which dress the cast in white for act one, in a mixture of white and pink in act two (a scheme followed in the fabrics of the set and props as well). The black evening wear for act three suggests not only party attire, but appropriate garb for the funeral which will occur after the anticipated death of Big Daddy. Weeping willows hang above the stage to suggest the pastoral beauty of the Mississippi Delta plantation outside on a lazy summer evening.

In the key roles, Hypocrites has a trio of actors who are more than up to the task of tackling Williams' challenging characters. Jennifer Grace as Maggie is alternately seductive yet insecure, strong yet vulnerable, and disappointed in her husband Brick but determined to keep him and share in an inheritance after Big Daddy's death. It doesn't hurt either that she bears a physical and vocal resemblance to the young Elizabeth Taylor of the 1958 movie version. John Byrnes' Brick initially spends a lot of time seething quietly in the first act, which makes his explosion (with or without the light bulb-shattering) all the more powerful. His escalation to a more communicative state in the later parts of act two and in act three is an effective deepening of the character. It's a solid performance, yet we might like to have seen a little more subtext in this largely non-verbal (in at least in relation to Maggie) character.

The character that dominates so much of the action whether onstage or off is Big Daddy, and The Hypocrites have a most impressive one in Rob Skrocki. He has every bit of the physical and stage presence demanded for this family patriarch who calls all the shots and is not about to acquiesce to the prospect of death. Skrocki manages to play Big Daddy's strength and capacity for meanness as well as compassion and have us believe the man is capable of all the above. Apparently, most every actor who has played Big Daddy has stolen the show with this layered character, and Skrocki does the same in this production. Strong support is provided as well by Kate Harris as Big Mama, Gregory Hardigan as Gooper and Stacy Stolz as Mae.

Most of The Hypocrites work has been of 20th-century drama, and the bulk of it of American writers. Clearly, the company and director Graney have a strong respect for the American classics and their creators. With this Cat, Graney gives homage to director Elia Kazan, by following much of the version by Williams that included elements Kazan demanded, including a larger cast.

This is the caliber of production one would more likely expect to see presented by a top-rated regional repertory company rather than a non-Equity one. At three times the price of $20 a ticket, The Hypocrites' Cat would still one of the best values imaginable for someone with an interest in American theater.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs through February 4, 2007 at Building Stages, 412 N. Carpenter, Chicago. Performances are Thursdays Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets, $10 for Thursday nights and $20 for Friday, Saturday and Sunday can be purchased through online at www.the-hypocrites.com or by calling TheatreMania at 866.811.4111.


Photo: Paul Metreyeon

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-- John Olson



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