By Paulanne Simmons
March 6, 2023: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, reputedly Tennessee Williams’ favorite among his oeuvre, touches on all the playwright’s preferred themes: the inevitability of death, the impossible pursuit of truth, the destructive power of sexual desire and its repression. This makes for passionate drama. In fact, the key to a successful production lies in discovering a means of toning down the action until the appropriate moment for the ultimate explosion.
Ruth Stage’s production, directed by Joe Rosario, features some excellent actors. However, it is undermined by a failure to modulate their performances into a steady rise in the action. What’s more, some of the actors are irredeemably miscast.
Matt de Rogatis is buff and brooding as Brick, the former football player turned alcoholic who refuses to have sex with his wife, due to an unfortunate incident with his deceased friend, Skipper. Having just injured his ankle while attempting to jump hurdles on the high school athletic field, Brick spends too much of his time hopping around on one foot with the aid of his crutch.
A lot of this hopping and stumbling occurs while he is running away from or threatening his wife, Maggie (Courtney Henggeler), who is using all her provocative and provoking skills to save both their marriage and their share in Brick’s inheritance. She believes these goals will be achieved if Brick will resume his conjugal duties and produce a child. And she is not mistaken. She knows Brick’s parents, the fatally ill Big Daddy (Frederick Weller) and the ever-hopeful Big Mama (Alison Fraser), adore Brick and favor him over his brother Gooper.
Contrary to their names, neither of Brick’s parents is particularly big. Weller has the rough outdoorsy looks of a cowboy, certainly not an aging plantation millionaire. Although Weller grabs his side and grimaces several times, no one would seriously consider him sick. Fraser is slim and sexy, swinging her hips lavishly as she implores her son to stop drinking or her husband to stop being a jerk. When Big Daddy calls her fat, we wonder whom he’s looking at.
Act I sizzles, mostly thanks to Henggeler’s captivating performance. But the rest of the play turns lukewarm, despite the histrionics. The unraveling relationship between Big Daddy and Big Mama fails to engage us. And now that we understand Brick’s feelings of guilt and repulsion over his relationship with Skipper, all that remains is who will get the plantation. And really, who cares? Better performances by the supporting actors representing the opposition might have helped.
This show is billed as a provocative and controversial modern staging. The play, with its focus on repressed homosexuality, was surely provocative and controversial when it was first produced. Today it is rather sedate. And as for modern, except for a set that evokes no time, the use of cell phones and some of the costuming, there’s little evidence of modernity here.
Nevertheless, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof remains an important and intriguing play. Even a flawed production stands on its feet, if shakily. And this one has scenes that will leave you breathless and heartbroken.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs through March 31 at Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46 Street. Photos: Miles Skalli