Daddys and lovers

The Lyric gives Williams's Cat new life; Dirty Dancing on stage
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  February 19, 2009

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CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF: This one has Lyric honcho Spiro Veloudos as a touchingly humane Big Daddy.

Tennessee Williams was famous for depending on the kindness of strangers. He might better have depended on the acuity of Scott Edmiston, whose deft and gauzy melding of recently discovered Williams one-acts resulted in the Elliot Norton Award–winning Five by Tenn. Now Edmiston gets into the ring with one of the heavyweights: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the 1955 Pulitzer Prize winner in which Williams uttered the love that dares not speak its name. The result is a solid if not transcendent Lyric Stage Company revival (through March 14), the biggest surprise of which is Lyric honcho and sometime hambone Spiro Veloudos's touchingly humane take on Big Daddy, a vulgar, vigorous titan of the Mississippi Delta whose much-trumpeted power has been significantly sapped by disease.

As the program points out, Cat's first life was as the 1952 short story "Three Players of a Summer Game," which related the alcohol-fueled collapse of young planter Brick Pollitt. By the time Williams and director Elia Kazan had brewed the material into a play, the sodden Brick had taken a back seat to his lustily moribund dad and determined, sexually frustrated wife, Maggie — who likens her situation to that of the uncomfortable feline of the title. The occasion is wealthy plantation baron Big Daddy's 65th birthday, which is also the date of receipt of results of a recent battery of medical tests to determine whether the patriarch is soon to be pushing up daisies or humping the whore of his dreams from, in his words, "hell to breakfast." Present for the party/prognosis are Brick and Maggie (the former temporarily crippled by a drunken attempt to relive past athletic glory), lovingly bulldozing matriarch Big Mama, and less-favored eldest son Gooper, backed by his pregnant wife, Mae, and a burgeoning brood of "no-neck monsters."

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is not, as critic Brooks Atkinson dubbed it, "Williams's finest drama." Despite its brave hauling of the destructive power of unacknowledged homosexuality to the forefront, the play harbors an undercurrent of revulsion at female sexuality that borders on misogyny and has always given me the creeps. Do we really need not one but two men whose willing wives give them the carnal heebie-jeebies? Moreover, the character of Brick is underwritten: he's a gimp cipher in silk pajamas nursing a secret guilt and adamantly awaiting the oblivion-inducing "click" that alcohol delivers.

But the play's theme of "mendacity" — so abhorred by Brick and Big Daddy, a tough character who can stand up to any truth but his own ebbing — is a potent one. And the larger-than-life characters of Maggie and Big Daddy, arguable monsters compassionately limned, are something to tip your hat to. In fact, for all their thinly masked greed and imperviousness to truth, Cat's characters (with the exception of fecund, grasping Mae and the medical and ministerial factotums) are humanely as well as humorously drawn. The catty wit does not emanate from Maggie alone.

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Related: Winter's tales, Play by play: February 20, 2009, Derailed, More more >
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