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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at A.C.T.
is a riveting production

Also see Richard's review of A Thousand Clowns and Finn in the Underworld

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Jack Willis and Michael James Reed
Maggie the Cat is alive and full of vitality in the American Conservatory Theatre's 50th anniversary production of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on the Geary Theatre stage. A.C.T. is using the playwright's final 1974 revision which includes bringing Big Daddy back in the last act.  This incorporates the original director Eliza Kazan's suggestions and replaces the original metaphorical speeches with more familiar swearwords.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof premiered on March 24, 1955 at the Morosco Theatre and ran 694 performances.  It is interesting to note that censorship by the New York License Commission was very strict as to what could be put on the Broadway stage during this time.  A few critics noted that what critic John Chapman called "dirty words" disappeared after opening night since the commissioner had not read the script.  The original drama did not win the Tony that year but it did receive the Pulitzer Prize for drama. I saw the original production several nights after the opening, with Barbara Bel Geddes playing Maggie and a striking Ben Gazzara playing Brick.  Burl Ives and Mildred Dunnock as Big Daddy and Big Mama were superb.

Over the years I have seen Elizabeth Ashley and Kathleen Turner play the role of lustful and frustrated Maggie. Fred Gwynn and Charles Durning as big Danny just never compared to Burl Ives.  The last production in New York starred Ashley Judd as the cat and Ned Beatty playing Big Daddy. MGM did a watered down version with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman that dropped the closeted homosexually of Brick the football player.

Tennessee Williams' play seems a little outdated in today's world, but in 1955 this gothic drama of one of the south's most dysfunctional families was the "cat's pajamas." The play is still charged with verbal pyrotechnics, savage humor and sexual tension. This is a volatile portrait of a Mississippi family run by the fearsome and bombastic Big Daddy. The family is jeopardized by artificiality and hidden desires.

Big Daddy (Jack Willis), a millionaire who has the best 26,000 acres of land this side of the Nile, is dying of cancer but he believes he is in good health due to a bogus medical report put out by his family. His oldest son Gooper (Rod Gnapp) and daughter-in-law Mae (Anne Darragh) secretly scheme to secure their inheritance.  Big Daddy's favorite son is Brick (Michael James Reed), a crestfallen former football star who loves his liquor more then his sensuous wife Maggie (Rene Augesen).  Their marriage is on the rocks because Brick will not satisfy the needs of his wife who is like a cat on a hot tin roof (a phrase used many times in the first and second acts.) Maggie fights back, as she wants a child so they can preserve the family fortune.  Big Daddy learns the painful truth abut his illness and the shocking secret of why Brick is morose and obnoxious.

American Conservatory Theatre is presenting this play in the original three acts with two intermissions. The first act centers on Rene Augesen (A.C.T. core member) as Maggie.  She uses her southern accented voice to high pitches in most of the solo passages, playing the role like Elizabeth Taylor in the film with an interpretation on a cat in heat with a little too much abundance. One wishes she could just simmer down a little and become sexy rather than a shrew.  Michael James Reed (New York Le Bete, King Lear, Amphitryon) has very little to do in this act but to sit in a chair drinking, with his leg in a cast.

Cat's second act is a showcase for Jack Willis (Black Rider at ACT, New York Julius Caesar with Denzel Washington plus The Crucible, Art and The Old Neighborhood) as Big Daddy.  He commands the stage as if he owns it with his grandiose performance. He still portrays a certain neediness in his performance, even when he is being imposing and brutal. Michael James Reed gets his chance to shine in his confrontation with Big Daddy.  He is dynamic in the showdown of why he has become an alcoholic. Katherine McGrath (associate artist at Old Globe) does well with the meaty role of Big Mama. She is touching and pathetic as the wife of the Big Daddy.

Williams' classic third act is almost farcical in acting as all the characters converge for a final showdown. Ron Gnapp (The Time of Your Life, Glengarry Glen Rose) is excellent as the small-minded corporate attorney and jealous younger brother of Brick who has a scheme to get the 28,000-acre piece of land. Anne Darragh (Suddenly Last Summer, Charlie Cox and The Sweetest Swing in Baseball) is perfect as the malicious, crafty and smug wife Mae.

Julian Lopez-Morillas (Marin Shakespeare Festival this summer) as the weak willed Reverend Tooker, and James Carpenter (Cal Shakes this summer) as Doctor Baugh have very little to do but are effective in these brief roles.  Frannie Lee Lowe as the housekeeper Sookey appears briefly in several scenes.  The obnoxious kids played by William Handley Lanier, Tohiah Richkind and Anya Jessie Richkind on opening night seemed to be just a little too pretty to be all that intolerable.

Ralph Funicello's set shows the richness of Maggie and Brick's bedroom with high, lavish wallpaper, louvered French doors and rich furniture. The lighting design of Russell Champa gives the appearance of a steamy night in Mississippi with an approaching storm. Costumes by Sandra Woodhall are period '50s dress.  Director Israel Hicks has made the production an almost over the top melodrama.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof plays at the Geary Theatre, 415 Geary St. San Francisco through November 13th.   For tickets please call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org. Their next production is the New Edition of Dickens' A Christmas Carol adapted by Carey Perloff and Paul Walsh  opening on November 26th and running through December 24. David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago opens on January 5th and runs through Feb 5th.


Photo: Kevin Berne


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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