Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Greed and Desire Drive Williams' Classic

Los Altos Stage Company

Also see Jeanie's reviews of The Heiress and Smell of the Kill and Richard's review of Silent Sky

Robert Campbell and John Baldwin
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ranks high in the canon of American plays, having won a Pulitzer Prize, been adapted into numerous film and TV specials, and long challenged theatre companies to tackle its huge themes and larger-than-life characters. Williams has a way of capturing life in extremity, when we finally meet the limits of our denial and have to face our demons. Los Altos Stage Company has taken up the gauntlet and mounted a handsome production that feels the angst, but gives the ending an interpretation that is both surprising and disappointing.

The Pollitt family is in crisis on Big Daddy's (John Baldwin) 65th birthday. Gathered to celebrate, instead the clan must keep reports of Big Daddy's terminal cancer secret from Big Mama (Sheila Elam) and Big Daddy until they can engineer an appropriate reveal. Eldest son Gooper (Danny Martin) and his pregnant wife Mae (Hannah Larson), who are there with their five children, are intent on orchestrating succession. Younger son Brick (Robert Campbell) and his wife Maggie (Patricia Pitpitan) know about the cancer, too, but Brick's focus is on his own problems.

A retired football player with a sprained ankle, Brick has turned to drink since the death of his good friend Skipper. Innuendoes that they were more than just friends undermine his confidence as well as his marriage; Maggie fueled the rumors and played a part in Skipper's downfall. Brick's drinking saves him from facing his failed career, his floundering marriage, and his own self-doubt, although he may not comprehend exactly why he's so hell-bent on self-destruction. Act one, basically a long scene between Maggie and Brick, lays out this background, while we watch Brick knock down shot after shot, enough to lay one out cold, waiting for the "click" in his head that signals numbness.

In act two, Big Daddy attempts to break through to Brick, thinking he's cancer-free and feeling paternal; Brick is his favorite, the one most like himself, and the only one he could see inheriting his substantial estate. But Brick has become a drunk and his marriage is childless; Big Daddy openly wonders if he's capable of managing the property. Big Daddy drags out more of the story surrounding Skipper's death, but ultimately gets more information than he bargained for.

Act three brings the whole tribe together to face Big Daddy's illness and settle the question of inheritance. Director Dawn Monique Williams has given the ending an unusual interpretation that is surprising. There's no redemption or reconciliation, much less resolution, and even intimations of murder. The final portrayals of Maggie and Brick leave us unsympathetic and, sadly, uncaring. [2/1/14: It has been brought to my attention that the version of the play used here is the 1974 Broadway Revival version, which differs in significant respects from the 1955 Broadway version. Apologies to director Williams for the previous error.]

Margaret Toomey's set design is quite attractive, enhanced by Pat Tyler's props and Jennifer Greene's lighting. Chris Enni's period music is appropriate and fun, but some of the offstage sound effect cues are confusingly loud. Costumes by Courtney Flores are mostly good, with the exception of Maggie's rust-red dress, which is unflattering and out of character. I also wondered what happened to the white silk pajamas, referenced for Brick.

Acting is uneven: Campbell and Baldwin do well to inhabit their roles, albeit somewhat overwrought, but Pitpitan is lackluster, almost monotone, as Maggie; she barely registers any emotion, and certainly no heat with Campbell—that they were ever lovers isn't plausible. Elam does a wonderful job with Big Mama, a role she seems born to play, and Larson is fresh in her sarcastic, sneering rendition of Mae. Martin makes good work of Gooper, hapless and scarcely able to hide his greed.

The show also runs long; at three hours, with two intermissions, it feels like a time-consuming, hot evening on the plantation. Without the desired heat of a smoldering relationship on stage and a credible ending, this version of Williams' classic leaves us caught between indifference and confusion.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams, presented by Los Altos Stage Company, 97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos; through February 16. Tickets $18-$34, available at 650-941-0551 or at

Photo: Joyce Goldschmid

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

- Jeanie K. Smith

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