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St. Louis by Robert Boyd

Cat On a Hot Tin Roof

Sometimes it's a good thing when the director of a play has a personal acquaintance with the playwright, and sometimes it isn't, especially when the playwright is no longer around to defend himself. Such is the case with the seasoning-opening production of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis, directed by Marshall Mason, winner of multiple Tonys and Obies and close collaborator with Williams (Mason's Circle on the Square theater resurrected Battle of Angels after an intended Broadway production had closed in Boston). The result of Mr. Mason's eagerness to insert his own ideas about structure and dialogue into William's admittedly fluid script is a play with some powerful moments but only some of the story of the original Broadway version, even less of its delicious subtleties and practically none of its poetry.

The southern culture out of which the characters and conflicts of Cat arise is wonderfully ambiguous, ugly and beautiful, true and hypocritical, spiritual and crass all at the same time, and one of the constants in Williams' extensive work in poetry, fiction, and drama is the love-hate relationship he had with that culture. If the audience loses sight of the very real splendor and grace of the society which can also produce Gooper and the no-neck monsters, the plays are reduced to parody. Big Daddy is not just a blustering bigot who has bullied and cheated his way to power; he is also and the audience must see this a hero who has prevailed against great odds and built a glorious empire, and is tragically brought low by the flaw of being, after all, only human. Maggie is not just an oversexed opportunist, out for the main chance; she too is battling against overwhelming odds to save her marriage and her husband. And Brick is not simply a sexually conflicted lush; the fame he has justly earned as an athlete is not to be discounted. The world of football may be a world of fantasy, but one does not succeed in it without great dedication and strength of spirit.

Mr. Mason's take on the play is to remove everything that gets in the way of what he sees as William's "classical" theme. He freely describes the script for this production as "my version" of the play, justifying the paring away of the children, for instance, by calling them empty gestures toward a realism that isn't necessary. The single set for this production is a massively Hellenic bedroom, oddly distant in both style and substance from the plantation world to which it supposedly belongs. While he strips the play down on the one hand, Mason adds on the other hand line after line of dialogue laced with explicitly obscene language which might not be jarring in a David Mamet play but is staggeringly improbable in this context, even given the decision to set the play in the present, complete with ringing cell phones.

Some fine physical performances especially from Michael McCarty as Big Daddy and Molly Schaeffer as Maggie are supported by solid ensemble work, and the evening is not without its electric moments, with the scene in which Big Mamma is told the truth and the closing scene of Maggie and Brick in bed as perhaps the most highly charged. In short, what Mr. Mason has put together is not a bad play, in its way, but to call it a play by Tennessee Williams seems to me to be less than entirely accurate.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Browning Mainstage now through October 7, 2005. To purchase tickets, call the Box Office at (314) 968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.


-- Robert Boyd

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