Tennessee Williams' big break was The Glass Menagerie (1944), followed by A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). His career went steadily downhill from there — a fitting state of affairs for a man whose writing betrayed an ongoing obsession with desperation and failure. The '50s brought a few more potent Williams works, including The Rose Tattoo (1951) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), but nothing quite matched the fierce effectiveness of his first two hits. His last bona fide success was The Night of the Iguana (1961), after which he wrote 16 or so more plays, none eliciting more than a shrug from audiences or critics. He died in 1983 when he choked on the cap of an eyedrop bottle.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) is probably the best play Williams wrote in the '50s. It's certainly the best-known, in part because the 1958 film version featured the irresistible pairing of Paul Newman with a young and white-hot Elizabeth Taylor. The play is a little overcooked, even by Williams' standards, but in the right hands it can be a galvanizing drama about family loyalty and suppressed desire.
If you're a fan of the show, this is a good time to be in San Francisco, where two very dissimilar productions are available for your consideration. Actors Theatre offers a traditional staging, while Boxcar Theatre delivers something more conceptually adventurous. It's a mark of the script's strength that both are worth seeing for completely different reasons.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof tells the story of the Pollitt family, a wealthy Southern clan on the brink of great change: The patriarch, known affectionately as Big Daddy, is dying of cancer. As the play opens, we meet Brick, Big Daddy's favorite son, a former football star fallen prey to alcoholism. Brick may or not may not be gay; we get plenty of hints that he might've had an affair with his friend, Skipper, long since dead. Brick is married to Maggie, a sexually precocious nag who'd like nothing more than to sleep with her husband. Brick, however, will have none of it — he's too busy marinating himself in booze.
None of this is subtle. The trick with producing a Tennessee Williams play is that you need to embrace the Southern-fried dysfunction without letting things stray into camp. That requires actors who know how to turn up the dial while keeping things recognizably human. It also needs a director who can handle melodrama, which is a trickier balancing act than you might think.
At Actors Theatre, under the steady direction of Keith Phillips, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is all about the actors. The set is as basic as it gets, and the sound and lighting effects are almost distractingly bad. But with a strong cast nailing some of the principal roles, the unglamorous presentation is unlikely to bug you.
You can't have a memorable Cat on a Hot Tin Roof without a strong Big Daddy, and Christian Phillips is one of the best I've seen. He hits all of the necessary notes — the good-ol'-boy malice, the quick wit, the insecurity and fear. The other actors nearly match him. As Big Mama, Hannah Marks is a perfect foil to his bluster, and Carole Robinson's Mae is a hilarious prude. Brick and Maggie are, however, more of a mixed bag: Nicholas Russell doesn't quite master the accent, and Jennifer Welch lacks the sultriness Maggie requires.
But these are frankly minor criticisms. Phillips doesn't cut anything from the script — the show runs three hours, including two intermissions — and to everyone's credit, it never drags.
While Actors Theatre preserves every word of Williams' script, Boxcar seems intent on jettisoning as much as possible. The company's production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — playing in repertory along with The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire — runs just 90 minutes without intermission. If you haven't seen the play in a while, you might not notice the cuts, but you'll probably notice a loss in dramatic momentum. And if you know the play well, the cuts are likely to annoy you.
Staged in the round on Boxcar's super-intimate stage, the production is great to look at. Matt McAdon's haunting set includes a wall of white sheets surrounding the audience — a kind of permeable boundary for the actors entering and exiting the stage. Ted Crimy's lush sound design envelops both actors and audience in echoes from the characters' tortured pasts.
At times, however, director Jeffrey Hoffman takes things a bit far, most egregiously when he stages a silent reunion between Brick and the ghost of Skipper. It's a maudlin, literal-minded touch that betrays a certain lack of confidence in the power of the script.
None of the performances match what you'll find at Actors Theatre. But you can't fault Hoffman for lack of invention, up to and including the final scene, in which Maggie undergoes a simple wardrobe change that's brilliant. "Nothing's more determined than a cat on a hot tin roof," she tells Brick as the lights go down. The play, like that damn cat, just keeps hanging on year after year, and it holds up just fine against two very different interpretations. You could do worse than to check out both.