Well, Tennessee Williams certainly knew his Tolstoy (I assume), for in his Pulitzer Prize-winning play (1955). “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” he confirms that “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Over the course of the play’s two acts, which is currently being staged at MTC Mainstage in Norwalk under the very capable direction of Kevin Connors, the Pollitt family proves that there are multiple ways to be unhappy but, fortunately, that unhappiness doesn’t extend to the audience’s experience, for Connors has crafted an excellent rendition of what is reportedly thought to be Williams’ favorite play.
The “cat” in the play’s title is Maggie (Andrea Lynn Green), a poor girl who married-up when she wed Brick (Michael Raver), youngest son of Big Daddy (Frank Mastrone) and Big Mamma (Cynthia Hannah). The Pollitts are looked upon as Mississippi royalty, for Big Daddy owns the biggest plantation in the state. However, his wealth does not guarantee happiness, for as the family, including eldest son Gooper (Robert Mobley) and his pregnant wife Mae (Elizabeth Donnelly), has gathered to celebrate Big Daddy’s birthday they keep from him and his wife the truth about Big Daddy’s recent medical check-up. He believes he has gotten a clean bill of health but, in fact, he is dying of cancer. Thus, his wealth will soon be up for grabs, and this grabbing fuels much of the play, as does one of its stated themes: mendacity.
The play’s first act (and the necessary exposition) is basically driven by Maggie, who early on reveals that all is not well in the bedroom with her husband. He sleeps on the sofa. Why? Well, Brick, an ex-football player, had a close relationship (Brick claims it was “pure”) with Skipper, another football player, a young man who committed suicide after…well, see the play to find out. In any event, soon after Skipper’s death Brick eschews his marital duties and takes to the bottle. For the duration of the play he uses a crutch, having injured himself while attempting to leap hurdles in a late-night run – yes, it’s all heavily metaphoric, but it doesn’t get in the way of or dominate the human wants, desires and frustrations that propel the play.
Green gives Maggie multiple levels of humanity – yes, she’s a “cat,” a creature driven by physical needs, but she’s also a perceptive human being who understands the dynamics of the Pollitt family and suspects the reasons for Brick leaving their marriage bed. She, as with the rest of the family, has secrets that will be revealed over the course of the play. It’s an intriguing, multi-level performance.
Raver really doesn’t have much to do in the first act other than mope and drink, but his character comes to full life in the second act with Brick’s extended “conversation” with Big Daddy, an outstanding Mastrone. This extended set-piece is at the heart of the play and it’s vital to understanding why this family is so unhappy, for Big Daddy, still unaware that he has terminal cancer, revels in the idea of 20 or so more years of life and the possibilities inherent, including relationships with women other than his wife. His son, on the crutch, views his own life as basically terminated. The scene runs for many minutes and is absolutely riveting, for the audience knows that so much more is being implied than is being verbalized.
The play wends its way towards multiple revelations in a final family gathering (with excellent blocking by Connors) that includes a preacher (Jim Schilling) and a doctor (Jeff Gurner). As Big Daddy’s pending demise is finally acknowledged there is a less-than-subtle battle for control of the family’s wealth, with Maggie attempting to motivate Brick to defend his patrimony. It’s a truly well-staged set-piece that Connors has blocked to emphasize the flow of emotions and the shifts in power-positions. Who is the ultimate winner? Well, cats often figure out a way to get what they want.
Given the relative intimacy of MTC’s stage, you can’t help but be drawn into the passions and frustrations of these characters, and Connors (and whoever else was responsible) has put together a fine cast that ably brings to life the unhappiness that rules the Pollitt family. As mentioned, Mastrone is a superb Big Daddy, and Raver shows his acting chops in the second act in the extended father-son confrontation. Hannah, as Big Mamma, ably personifies matriarchal denial and, in the second act, Connelly and Mobley portray mendaciousness itself as they, as Mae and Gooper, attempt to take control of Big Daddy’s wealth.
All in all, this is an intense, intelligent production of an American theatrical classic. It’s gripping and subtle and, above all, thanks to Green’s performance, sensual on a level that bespeaks both need and desire. Yes, Maggie is a “cat,” but she’s a feline that yearns to be petted and yet a “cat” that knows how to defend her territory. She purrs when appropriate, but she has claws.
There are different versions of the play, and Connors has chosen the version that ends with Brick contemplating the possibility, as his father does at the end of the first act about his own marriage, that his wife actually loves him. The last line — “Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true?” – captures the hurt, confusion and underlying deep need that make the Pollitts such an unhappy family.
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” runs through November 18. For tickets or more information call 203-454-3883 or go to www.musictheatreofct.com.