Fire in the pines

Tennessee Williams’ drama heats up Theatre on the Ridge

Jerry Miller is top cat Big Daddy.

Jerry Miller is top cat Big Daddy.

Photo by David Yager

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, now showing at Theatre on the Ridge Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m. & Sunday, 2 p.m., through Sept. 27.

Theatre on the Ridge
3735 Neal Road, Paradise

At first, the idea of staging Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for the predominantly (it seemed to me) senior citizen audience of Theatre on the Ridge, in the sleepy, pine-shrouded and fairly conservative community of Paradise, struck me as courageous for the producers and potentially challenging for the audience. After all, the play, Tennessee Williams’ Southern Gothic masterpiece, explores themes of alcoholic dissipation, thwarted sexuality and dysfunctional family dynamics. Then it occurred to me that people of a certain age, faced with personal mortality and family dynamics of their own, might find the play both illuminating and, in a way, cathartic.

Williams’ depiction of a few dramatic hours on the 65th birthday of his larger-than-life character Big Daddy (played here by Jerry Miller)—dying patriarch of the plantation-owning, old-Southern-money Pollitt clan—is enough to make nearly anyone feel that their own family travails are relatively small potatoes by comparison.

The action features Big Daddy’s interactions with his secretly loathed wife, Big Mama (Teresa Hurley-Miller); his (possibly) homosexual ex-athlete son Brick (Matt Hammons) and his sexually and reproductively frustrated wife, Maggie “the Cat” (Ashley Garlick); and his other son Gooper and his “fertility monster” of a wife, Mae (Karen Fox) and their troop of “no-neck monsters” (aka children).

The play opens with Maggie, partially disrobing due to being struck by a “hot buttered biscuit” flung by one of the no-neck monsters and thus having to change out of her “lovely lace dress.” To those most familiar with the play via the 1958 movie version and Elizabeth Taylor’s glamorous brunette take on the character, Garlick, a pretty and fair strawberry blonde with an air more of bruised innocence than incipient debauchery, may at first seem cast against type as Maggie, but her manner and delivery soon allow us a believable look into Maggie’s yearning and frustrated character.

Hammons’ portrayal of the increasingly intoxicated and bitterly insightful and brutally articulate Brick is equally charged with believability. Having the character of an alcoholic be hampered by a literal crutch and a crippled leg could seem a bit heavy-handed in the literary-symbolism department, but Hammons inhabits the character so thoroughly that his symbolic resonance is displaced by his very human emotional sympathy. Williams’ script never makes explicit whether Brick is capable of accepting or even perceiving the (perhaps latent) homosexuality at the heart of his love for his late teammate, Skipper, who drank himself to death after a failed attempt by Maggie to seduce him in order to verify her suspicions of the cause of Brick and Skipper’s devotion to each other.

The rage, frustration and sorrow at the heart of Brick and Maggie’s sham marriage is reflected in the attitude of Big Daddy toward Big Mama and their equally false portrayal of marital devotion. Miller, who, according to the program notes, “is taking a break from writing and directing to be part of this exciting project,” could not have chosen—or been chosen for—a more perfect role for both his gravitas as an actor and gravity field as a man of great substance. In my opinion, Big Daddy, more than Maggie, is the real cat on a hot tin roof. And that roof is heated, as he says, “By all the goddamn lies and liars that I have had to put up with, and all the goddamn hypocrisy that I lived with all these 40 years that [Big Mama and I] have been livin’ together!”

This is a production well worth seeing. The entire cast is excellent, the staging is simple and elegant, and the story is both currently relevant and well deserving of the Pulitzer Prize it won in 1955.