There is no doubt that Thomas Lanier Williams III (aka Tennessee) is one of the greatest American playwrights of the 20th century, a designation he shares with Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller.
The question then is why are his plays (and theirs) regularly ignored by America’s community theaters?
There are answers, several of which are apparent in the South Bend Civic Theatre production of Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof,” which opened Friday evening in the Wilson Theatre.
The most obvious answer is the length of his plays, two hours and 45 minutes (including two intermissions). This, plus the playwright’s love of single character dialogues, which become monologues and can drone on and on, defeating their purpose of creating back story/character depth.
The other answers include unpleasant characters who take delight in ravaging each other to the point of extinction. Nonetheless, watching the adversarial attacks and retreats, victories and defeats, is like watching a train wreck. It’s difficult to look away.
The Pollitt family would seem to have several reasons to celebrate. It is the 65th birthday of the pater familias, Big Daddy Pollitt (Max Sala), just returned from a medical clinic which gave him a clean bill of health. He and Big Mama (Lucinda Gary Moriarty) are the only ones who don’t know he really is dying of cancer.
Son Gooper (Steven Matthew Cole) and Gooper’s ever-pregnant wife Mae (Alice Nagy) have brought their four little “no-neck monsters” to celebrate and secure their position in Big Daddy’s will. It is obvious, however, that he prefers son Brick (Bill Svelmoe), a former college football star and TV sports reporter favoring an injured ankle and sinking quickly and deliberately into alcoholism.
Determined to prevent her in-laws from taking the inheritance is Brick’s wife, Margaret (Patty Bird), aka Maggie the Cat. Her uphill battle is exacerbated by the fact that her husband will have nothing to do with her, the reason for which gradually is revealed.
In all fairness to Ms. Bird, Maggie’s first entrance opens the play and, for what seems like more than a half hour, she talks —to herself, to Brick and, via shouts, to other family members — without much interruption. It is a daunting assignment. No lines were dropped on opening night but, for the most part, it was difficult to hear or understand, allowing attention to wander early on.
The same assignment falls to Big Daddy who goes from haranguing Brick about his lack of interest in Maggie and his possible inheritance to thundering epithets when a drunken Brick lets slip the real diagnosis. Sala has more success with his diatribes, shifting the emotion without losing the words and relishing his ownership of “28 acres of the richest land this side of the Valley Nile.”
Except for his provoked outburst to Big Daddy, Svelmoe primarily lay on the lounge with his drink (or hopped on his crutch for a refill) and took little notice of the anger swirling around him, brooding over the death (and sexuality) of his long-time buddy Skipper.
The “no-neck monsters” are appropriately bratty, Cole and Nagy whine, cajole and berate depending on the object of their conversation. Moriarty clings and cries and refuses to let go of her husband or son.
Costuming is nondescript, with Maggie’s dress evoking ladies-of-the-evening couture while the rest of the family seemed to feel the party was “come as you are.”
All this is played out, according to the concept of director Chuck Gessert, on a circular round stage, raked to an extreme degree that must guarantee all the players really toned calf muscles and does not help with the theater’s on-going acoustical problem. The furniture, while securely fastened, always seemed about to tip over. According to a program note, this is to “reflect the inner struggles of the characters.”
It more seemed to reflect the line delivered by Dr. Baugh (Richard Pfeil) when about to tell Big Mama the fatal news, “This is gonna be painful.”
“CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF” plays through May 24 in the Wilson Theatre, 215 W.Madison, South Bend. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 234-1112 or visit sbct.org.