Georgia Shakespeare doesn't program modern plays lightly, but Tennessee Williams’ 1955 Pulitzer Prize winner Cat on a Hot Tin Roof feels even more Shakespearean than some of the Bard’s own work. Where some of the playwright’s lauded contemporaries, such as Arthur Miller, age less gracefully, Williams’ best plays seem increasingly at home in the classical canon, as attested by the grand production of Cat directed by Jasson Minadakis.
In addition to its sturdy “Daddy’s dying — who’s got the will?” plot, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof sets up an axis between three characters, each of whom could come from a different major literary tradition. “Big Daddy” Pollitt (Tim McDonough) looks like King Lear transplanted as a rich midcentury Mississippi farmer. Like Lear, Big Daddy succumbs to both a towering temper and the lies of his untrustworthy children. He also proves reckless in the disposal of his kingdom, “28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the River Nile.” Cat takes place on the eve of Big Daddy’s massive 65th birthday party, and outdoor fireworks provide booming accompaniment to his most explosive speeches, like Lear raging against the tempest.
Big Daddy’s favorite son Brick (Daniel Thomas May) resembles a flawed Greek hero among the Southern gentry. He’s a physical paragon like Achilles, but instead of a vulnerable heel, he suffers from a broken ankle following a drunken misadventure leaping hurdles. Where Achilles sulked in his tent, risking the fate of the Greek army in Homer’s Iliad, Brick withdraws into his bedroom with a whiskey glass, indifferent to his brother Gooper’s (Chris Ensweiler) schemes to seize control of the plantation.
Brick’s desperate wife, Maggie (Courtney Patterson), shows parallels to other literary women, such as Lady Macbeth, with more vulnerability. She seems more closely related to Williams' other besieged Southern belles like Amanda Wingfield or Blanche Dubois; enduring characters too original and fully rounded to seem like somebody else’s influence. In a way, Cat shows a contest between potentially tragic figures from Shakespeare, Homer and Williams, and no matter how often you see the play, it’s a bit surprising to see who rises and who falls.
Patterson retains Maggie’s iconic coquettishness, particularly in the seductive way she pulls on and fastens her stockings. Yet her Maggie the Cat seems less defined by slinky sexuality than anxiety over the usurping in-laws, her failing marriage, and the prospect of returning to her impoverished roots. Patterson’s normally the sunniest of actresses and nearly steals A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a small but charming turn as the fairy Peaseblossom. Here, she redirects her charm, making Maggie something of a little girl lost when faced by grown-up challenges. She also seems to be delivering her lines higher than her usual register, like the lilt of an ex-debutante, which made her opening-night performance not quite as audible as usual.
McDonough’s looming physical presence and resounding, sepulchral drawl combine to convey Big Daddy’s power and his decline, like a plantation on the verge of caving in on itself. During the long speeches that communicate the scope of Big Daddy’s life and frustrations, McDonough uses his arms to eccentric effect. At times he gesticulates like he’s casting seeds, or grasping at an invisible lifeline, which makes sense for a planter unwittingly dying of cancer. Other times, his movements seem to have little connection to his soliloquies, and bring to mind Hamlet’s advice to actors: “Do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently.”
At the time of the play’s premiere in the mid-1950s, well before the Stonewall riots or The Boys in the Band, the notion that Brick might have had a homosexual relationship with his deceased friend Skipper seemed scandalous. Brick seems to protest too much when he describes his bond with Skipper as “that one great true thing.” Today, it seems scandalous to consider that Brick might not be gay, that their “exceptional friendship” was wholly platonic, at least from his side of things.
May’s performance captures the enigma of Brick, and suggests that the role’s sexual orientation wouldn’t “explain” his resentment of Maggie and his self-destructive traits. When Brick slowly whistles through Maggie’s speeches, he seems intently focused on her instead of ignoring her. When he eventually lashes out at Maggie — May’s expression turning crooked with rage and disgust — the outbursts startle us. May makes us wonder if Maggie’s moment of infidelity, not Skipper’s death, was what truly broke his heart.
Of course, Cat features more than three characters, and the cast offers a microcosm of Southern society, including a doctor, a preacher, a pregnant mom and four boisterous children (played by some particularly amusing young actors in Georgia Shakespeare’s production). Megan McFarland gives a heartbreaking turn as Big Momma, her hoarseness infusing the character’s lines with a depth of experience and feeling that makes the character’s mistreatment all the more wrenching.
During his too-brief stint as artistic director of Actor’s Express before relocating to California’s Marin Theatre Company, Minadakis was possibly the city’s best director of charged, intense confrontations. He could build harsh emotions to crescendos like an orchestral conductor. His Cat makes an even stronger impression with its contemplative pauses, the moments when the characters take a breath and let the melancholy feelings hang in the air. Such lovely moments inevitably make the show longer, and it’s a three-hour marathon already.
The lovely final scene winds down with a tone of doomed détente between a married couple. The closing line “If only that were true” emulates the final line of The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” which sums up another irreconcilable love affair. So add Hemingway to the list of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’s literary peers.