When a thunderstorm clears the steamy Southern air near the end of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," it releases most of the pent-up tension and aggression the characters have been bristling with the entire play. And one could feel a cathartic collective exhale from the audience in the Sydney Laurence Theatre, where Perseverance Theatre is staging its production of the Tennessee Williams classic.
In a sense, it's a relief when the show comes to a close -- not because it's a bad production but because it's a faithful production of a terrifically intense play. If you're seeking a few hours of mindless entertainment -- or if you have high blood pressure -- stay home and watch TV. But if being sucked into the bickering, betrayal and dramas (both petty and profound) of a fiery Southern family appeals to you, then by all means, mosey on down to the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, where the skilled actors of Perseverance Theatre will transport you to a Mississippi plantation, circa 1955, just as the larger dramas of the civil rights movement and the sexual revolution are about to boil over.
Although we understand early on that the Pollitt plantation is a sprawling expanse of wealth -- "28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile," as the proud patriarch Big Daddy tells us repeatedly -- the fact that virtually the entire play takes place in one room exponentially compounds the tension already present in the plot. The drama, which ends up enveloping the entire family (plus a doctor and a preacher, to boot), unfolds in the bedroom of Brick, Big Daddy's son, and his wife, Maggie. And it begins with a close-up on that dysfunctional couple: Brick, a washed-up former football star who has resorted to drowning himself in booze, has just broken his ankle trying to jump hurdles at the local high school, and slumps among the liquor stand, the bathroom and the couch, uttering few words. The animated Maggie, however, does enough chattering for the two of them.
In between her unfiltered trivialities, we learn that Big Daddy is dying of terminal cancer but that he and his wife, Big Mama, have been lied to about the results of a recent biopsy. It's his birthday, and he is celebrating both another year of life and what he believes is a clean bill of health. We also learn that Brick and Maggie no longer sleep together, despite Maggie's obvious desire to do so. Brick has been deeply depressed since the suicide of his close friend Skipper and is even more distraught over the suggestions from his wife and father -- backed up by credible evidence, we later learn -- that he and Skipper were far more than friends. Against this backdrop, the truth about Big Daddy's impending death is revealed and a treacherous power struggle for control of the estate comes to light, pitting Big Daddy's other son, Gooper, and his wife, Mae, against the equally conniving Maggie.
The obvious big hitter in the cast is Herbert Siguenza as the volatile Big Daddy. Siguenza, whose presence exudes gravity on stage, is equally forceful in Big Daddy's infamous rant at the end of Act One (an extraordinarily difficult passage: "ALL -- LYING SONS OF -- LYING BITCHES ... Yes, all liars, all liars, all lying dying liars --Lying! Dying! Liars!") as he is in his quieter, more nuanced conversations with Brick.
But Enrique Bravo's performance as Brick is arguably the show's highlight. Bravo's bottled-up Brick seethes with repressed anger, internalized homophobia and guilt, and in the few moments when his semi-catatonic state is replaced with rage, it's simultaneously terrifying and pathetic. Elizabeth M. Kelly's turn as the sly Maggie is more difficult to evaluate; one might criticize her performance as being static, lacking the depth we see in Brick and Big Daddy. But one could also argue that Williams' script doesn't allow as much depth for her character as it does for the men, often seeming to relegate her to the stock role of Hysterical Southern Woman -- and the same goes for Big Mama. But Kelly's consistent and enduring energy in such a demanding role (especially given her sheer number of lines) is remarkable.
The creative set and lighting design also provides much-needed depth and variation where the script doesn't specifically provide for it. Although a certain amount of claustrophobia is necessary to convey the tension of the plot, set designer Akiko Nishijima Rotch cleverly expands the set beyond the bedroom by making its walls just barely see-through. We are still totally aware of how the confined space adds to the heated atmosphere but we can also see other characters eavesdropping at the door, children playing in the hall and a croquet game going on outside. It's simple but totally effective. And Art Rotch's meticulous lighting design adds to that holistic experience; we don't realize the lights have been dimming throughout the play (mimicking natural light) until a character turns on a lamp and instantly floods the room with light. It's a sensation we've all experienced in real life, and it draws us into the play's reality.
Feel-good theater it is not, but Perseverance's "Cat" succeeds in the daunting task of staying faithful to Williams' canonized (and, in his opinion, best) play. But it actually goes even further, exploring dusty corners of the play's world that most other productions ignore. So if you like a challenge, head over to the Sydney Laurence and lose yourself in the wild, heated world of the Pollitts.
By EGAN MILLARD