Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Immediately upon entering The Stage, we are struck by Guilio Cesare Perrone's scenic design of an open, elegant bedroom, with a backdrop of lit columns and a wall of brilliantly lit bluean invisible wall that we will soon learn has equally invisible doors that will at times slam loud enough to almost send the entire arena into a shudder (thanks to the incredible sound design of Steve Schoenbeck, whose stormy thunder will later also send us shivering in our seats). Michael Johnson's lighting will send clouds flying at times peacefully, at times furiously across the day and night skies of that unseen wall and will also set up shadowed patterns on the floor that reflect feelings of being caged or of being boxed-in that various characters will project. In these and many other ways, this creative teamincluding properties masters Caitlin Elizabeth and Yvonne Vo and costume designer Ashley Garlicksets a stage ready to accept and enhance the war of words, the battle of bitter looks, and the air of tension, regret and remorse that director Lee Sankowich inventively and inspirationally creates with this cast.
From the moment she begins to rattle non-stop in her sultry, Southern voice to her indifferent, hardly listening husband, Allison F. Rich establishes herself as a Maggie whose tempting meows and sharpened claws are equally honed to meet her goal of ensuring her alcoholic, ex-football-star husband Brick gets his share of Big Daddy's "28,000 of the richest acres this side of the valley Nile." That Brick (Rob August) shows no interest is evident in either the eventual inheritance of his cancer-suffering father or in the magazine-cover-worthy wife who presses her shapely self and her greedy paws onto his non-receptive muscles. Brick's only interest is hobbling on his crutch from his chaise lounge to the TV-stereo console that also serves as a bar, better known as "Echo Springs," in honor of the whiskey he consumes glass after glass of. The ice he pops into each glass of expensive cut crystal is the same ice that Maggie in her tight, white slip rubs seductively to cool her arms and neck. However, no matter how much she flashes her big-pupil eyes or purses her deep-red lips, the more she is ignored by her well-preserved, former athletic husband in terry cloth robe and ankle castan injury he acquired the night before while drunkenly trying to recreate his hurdle-jumping greatness.
The disdain that Brick has for a Maggie who professes constantly her love and desire for him mirrors the disdain his father, Big Daddy (Randall King), clearly has for his ever-doting, always fawning wife, Big Mama. Big Daddy spits and snaps, bites and barks his repetitive "Be quiet!" to a wife (Judith Miller) who flutters about him in her flowered skirt and purple pumps. Big Mama is a non-stop flow of high-volume, high-pitched mixture of professed love toward him and hailed hallelujahs about a clean-health report she and her husband have been given on this, his sixty-fifth birthday. The false-results deception is known by everyone but the two of thema family that has gathered this night for the celebration of which Big Daddy wants no part. Believing that all the recent tests have released him from death's door has made Big Daddy all the more belligerent against a stunned wife he now attacks in loud, hateful shouts, roaring that the only thing that really ails him is "all the goddamn hypocrisy I have lived with all these forty years that we have been livin' together."
Just as Maggie wants to be sure Brick and she get their fair share of the immense wealth Big Daddy has accumulated, so do Brick's older brother Gooper (Will Springhorn, Jr.) and his wife Mae (Tanya Marie). Gooperalso known as Brother Boyis a stiff-necked, somewhat goofus of a corporate lawyer who is clearly not the favorite (or even the much-liked) son of either of his parents (that being the one thing they seem to agree on). His busy-body, eavesdropping wifeyes, also known as Sister Womansingsongs in an obnoxiously annoying voice her too-flattering accolades of Big Daddy and Big Mama. Nothing she says wins fans among any of her relativessomething that seems to go right over her head even when the ire of Big Daddy or the sneering of Maggie finds her as an easy target. The saving grace for her and Gooper is that they have produced five of what Maggie refers to as "no-necked monsters" (with a sixth visibly on the way in Mae's belly)an accomplishment of which Mae reminds anyone who will listen, while also bemoaning the fact that Maggie and Brick have no offspring and none seemingly on the way.
The more Brick continues to drink and to lounge with eyes mostly closeddesperately seeking that "click I get in my head when I've had enough of this stuff to make me peaceful"the more Maggie presses him to take on the role of the favorite son he actually is and to prove he is worthy of the inheritance that Gooper and Mae are plotting to seize. Maggie's nagging is incessant and only increases with each passing minute in intensitysometimes performed in sweet, enticing purrs but more often in cynic, snide hisses and snarls that cut to the core of a past that the brooding Brick drinks to avoid facing. Whenever Maggie mentions with an extra feline snarl the name SkipperBrick's now-deceased from suicide palthe gloves come off on both parts, resulting in facial slaps that ring shockingly true, body slams to the floor when Maggie grabs Brick's crutch, and near misses to her head when he wildly but purposely swings the crutch at her. (These and other family, physical altercations are startling in their realism, especially all the many times Rob August crashes to the floor, with the training and direction of fight choreographer Will Springhorn, Jr. worthy of award.)
Along with accolades galore to each member of this cast, not enough praise can go to director Lee Sankowich. Little touches leave big marks. A persistent call of an overhead bird of prey continually paralyzes Brick for a few seconds as he looks up and out, searching for something in that piercing cry that speaks to hima proud bird free-flying above him while he remains caged below, trying to drown his painful memories and his more tormenting present. (The bird's cry that swoops over and around Brick and us is another example of the aforementioned but ever more impressive sound design by Steven Schoenbeck.) Equally impactful, the invisible walls of the bedroom allow us to see the director's choice to plant there a snooping Mae or a worried Big Mama or to see walking or running down an outside hallway other scenes occurring parallel to that of the script's current focus.
The mendacity and the avarice that these family members bemoan in each otherand even at times in themselvesare a cancer much worse in many ways than the one that ravages inside Big Daddy. The Stage's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof leaves us all exhausted but exhilarated by the incredible performances as we watch all the members of this sick family dance around everything to avoid anything like the truth.
Toward the end, as Maggie lies like a lounging lioness on the chaise lounge she has taken over from Brick, there is no mistake that this self-proclaimed cat is about to pounce in victory on her now-exhausted prey in an ending that leaves us as audience ready ourselves to jump to our feet in a well-deserved standing ovation.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, through March 3, 2019, at The Stage, 490 First Street, San Jose CA. Tickets are available at www.thestage.org.