Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in a Hot New Staging

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

Gorgeous, seductive blonde Maggie the cat is bounding about her southern plantation mansion bedroom, swiveling her hips, shaking her lustrous hair from side to side, showcasing her sexy underwear and flashing her eyes in an effort to get her good looking former football star husband, Brick, to make love to her. She needs a baby to inherit her sick father-in-law’s enormous 28,000 acre plantation, keep the family together and restore her relationship with her husband, who has not touched her in a long time.

At one point in this seething new production of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, at the Fitzpatrick Main Stage Theater, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, part of the Berkshire Theatre Festival, Maggie is on all fours on the bedroom floor, half undressed, ready to pounce, looking just like the cat that she claims she is.

You would think that Williams’s sixty year old play about vengeful family strife in a dysfunctional family in the South, would be out of date by now, a chestnut from a long lost era, but it is not. The drama, finely directed by David Auburn, who wrings all the sex and heat out of it that anybody could, has given it new life in a majestic and thrilling production in the Berkshires, in Massachusetts. It a play, too, that, when all else fails, showcases the sexual power of women through the bombshell performance of Rebecca Brooksher as Maggie, perhaps Williams’ most memorable character.

The story starts on the night of Big Daddy’s 65th birthday party. He is the lurking, large mogul of the plantation and he is sick. Some say he has malignant cancer and some say he just has a colon problem, but, whatever, he is ill and his family is already carving up his inheritance of land, savings, stocks and bonds. Son Gooper and his annoying wife Mae have five children (Maggie famously calls them the “no neck monsters”) and, as the perfect nuclear family, fully expect to inherit just about everything. Throughout the night, they do everything possible to do that and scoff at any claims by the other son, football hero Brick, who has broken his leg and hobbles around on a crutch, and his wife Maggie.

The story is not the fight for the plantation, though. It is the fight for love, lost love and reclaimed love. Brick is 27 and has lost his athletic skills. He broke his leg jumping over a hurdle at the local high school field, something that would never have happened during his legendary sports career. To get over his injury, and to get over anything, he drinks. And drinks. And drinks. Maggie is trying to sober him up and, at the same time, discover the murky history of Brick and his dad, Big Daddy, and the shadowy history of his relationship to best friend Skipper, who has died. Were they just best friends or were they lovers? Why does Brick mourn so for Skipper? And avoid Maggie?

Maggie wants Brick in her bed and in her arms and, at the same time, lustfully covets Big Daddy’s planation and money. Maggie disdains Gooper and Mae and all their rotten little kids. She goes after her husband and the plantation like a heat-seeking missile.

Brick’s brother Gooper is a lawyer who seems to be, at best, a genuine fool, as does his acidic, vengeful, brutish, bitchy wife Mae. Throughout the play you believe they are going to get everything, but there is a gnawing doubt because Big Daddy loves his troubled son Brick to death. Why? Did the matriarch of the family revel in Brock’s athletic fame? See him as the champion of life as well as sports? The young Adonis? What is the deep, smoldering stuff that holds their relationship together?

And then there is Big Mama, a tried and true southern wife who has held the marriage and family together for years, sticking all of the skeletons in the closets and locking the doors. She is despised by her husband, though.

The whole bunch of them, with friends, battle through the night and their conversations give ugly a new meaning. The fireworks in the play are nothing like the fireworks in the family.

This 1955 play, turned into a 1958 movie starring Burl Ives, Paul Newman and Liz Taylor (in that famous slip), does not showcase the moonlight and magnolias, mint julep, cotillion ball look of the grand Old South of movies and stories at all. This is the South of the modern day UFC caged match showdown, in which eye-gouging and low blows are encouraged, not penalized.

You get a fine historic look at the South, at America, in the mid 1950s, in the play. Big Daddy tells his rags to riches story and it is the story of many men in the South, the bosses and the workers, in an agrarian world. There is the sports world of the 1950s South, here featuring Brick as a national football hero, but it was the easy to identify the world of Alabama football champions, bowl games, top ten rankings, jammed packed stands, and boisterous tail gate parties. It was a South that seemed to have everything that best represented America and the American family. Of course, in this play and in the 1950s South, there is no hero worship of African Americans, as there was for the speedy Brick. They sat in the back of the bus and kept to their side of town, remaining in their proper place. There was little room for women in that South, too, unless they were sex cats like Maggie or housekeepers like Big Mama who made the meals, cleaned the house and kept quiet.

Director Auburn gets some titanic performances in this play. Brooksher is a sexy and highly charged Maggie, ready to do just about anything to get her way and sink her lovely claws into the plantation. Brick is a drunken stumble bum trying to remember his glory days, that died with Skipper. He is as laid back as laid back gets and played with dignity and fire by Michael Raymond-James.

Big Daddy is one of Williams’s great characters. He argues for long moments that mendacity (untruthfulness) is the hallmark of his entire family and fears that it is the hallmark of all American life. The talented Jim Beaver plays him as a gargantuan figure of the Old South. His wife Big Mama, weeping and wailing as she tries to hold everybody together, is given wonderful life in a powerful performance by Linda Gehringer. Others in the talented cast are David Adkins, Timothy Gulan, Jenn Harris (the relentless Mae), Brian Russell and Julianna Salinovici.

When you see Cat on Hot Tin Roof, in this super staging, you do not dwell on Maggie and the Old South. You do not do that because everything in the play concerning men and women, fathers and sons is prevalent in America today. People metaphorically try to slit each other’s throats and family battles over love and money are still savage and titanic. The South has not changed in that manner in sixty years, and neither has the rest of America.

If you can, catch this hot, hot production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

PRODUCTION: The drama is produced by the Berkshire Theatre Festival . Scenic Design: Jason Sherwood, Costumes: Hunter Kaczorowski, Lighting: Ann G. Wrightson. The play is directed by David Auburn. It runs through July 16.

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