A Celebration of All Things Cultural, Artistic, and Entertaining in Madison
Jan 28, 2013
Strollers Brings the Heat with 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'
While the new Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has been generating buzz, Madison theatergoers needn’t look further than the Bartell Theatre if they want to feel the heat of Tennessee Williams’ scorching drama.
In fact, the Bartell’s intimate Evejue Stage seems the ideal place from which to watch the dysfunctions of a wealthy Mississippi family play out. Sitting so close to the action, the audience feels like an eavesdropper listening in on neighbors’ heated, intensely personal conversations.
Presented by Strollers Theatre, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is set in the 1950s, on the cotton plantation of “Big Daddy” Pollitt on the eve of his sixty-fifth birthday. The patriarch thinks he’s just sidestepped a cancer scare, but his relatives who have assembled to help him celebrate know he’s dying—and they’re jockeying for the sizable inheritance.
Although the plot centers on this family drama, the symbol of the play since it opened in 1955 has always been Maggie, the feisty, frustrated daughter-in-law married to Brick, the favored son and celebrated athlete who has become a despondent alcoholic.
Desperate to regain her husband’s attention—not to mention his love and physical affection—Maggie earns her “cat” nickname. She alternates between toying with Brick, attempting to seduce him, screaming at him and silently, carefully watching him. She doesn’t just vamp; she reveals bitterness and vulnerability. (“Don’t you think I know,” she says to Brick, “that I’ve gone through this horrible transformation? I’ve become hard and frantic and cruel.”)
I anticipated Maggie the Cat being a powerhouse, but I wasn’t prepared for how magnetic Jessica Jane Witham would be in the role. No matter which of a tremendous range of emotions she employs, it’s impossible not to watch her. In scenes not featuring the character, her presence is missed.
A second surprise—and a testament to Strollers’ direction with the play—is how much the characters’ flaws, jabs, denials, jealousies, selfishness, misunderstandings, manipulations, even misguided attempts at kindness, ring true. This mess of imperfections is how families are to one another; this is how people can be at their core. It can't all be made right and the tension lingers.
Another pleasure to watch onstage is Sam White as Big Daddy. He’s loud, crude, cruel and funny, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only audience member a little afraid of him. But his ferociousness provides a beautiful contrast to when he reaches out to his troubled son and softens slightly as Brick reveals why he started drinking.
It’s this mix—the rages and kindnesses, the sultriness and the coldness, the giving up and the clawing for what you want—that makes Cat on a Hot Tin Roof so fascinating. And the way Strollers carries out these contrasts with a sense of humanity is what makes the play such a pleasure to witness.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs through February 2 at the Bartell Theatre. For more information, visit strollerstheatre.org.
Photo courtesy of Strollers Theatre.