Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
The area’s oldest community theater company is entering its 77th season, so it’s fitting that Reno Little Theater would choose to unveil its exciting new space—a goal years in the making—with a staple of American drama, Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
I’ve somehow never seen Cat despite having studied dramatic literature. I always thought it concerned some Scarlet O’Hara type: a poor little rich girl languishing on a plantation while actual poor folks worked the fields. Yet poor folks are absent, and the play seems mostly about a once-gloried, now-broken man throwing his life away while his loud, messy family clamors about him and carries on. Williams’ text is concerned—often obsessed—with the idea that the great American dream of financial success has failed to make America happy. How this message came across to 1950s audiences, I can only guess, but on this particular stage in this particular century, it comes across as rather shrill. Fortunately, there’s more to uncover in Williams’ play, and director Doug A. Mishler gamely digs at it, as a cast of deeply unhappy people run dysfunctional circles around each other.
First, there’s Maggie (Elizabeth Jernigan), the play’s titular character. We know this because everyone, including Maggie herself, refers to her as Maggie the Cat. There are also several references to what a figurative feline might do if presented with the hypothetical environment of a high-temperature metal surface. These kinds of broad references abound, matching the broadness of several of the performances. Jernigan’s portrayal is among the production’s less showy ones. She’s expressive and brings vulnerability to the role of a near-desperate woman. However, the play’s gravity often depends on the tension between Maggie and her husband, the damaged Brick (Bradford Ka’ai’ai’). The dynamic between Ka’ai’ai’ and Jernigan is somewhat airless, and much of the first act feels consequently deflated.
Things get crackling in Act Two, which culminates with a confrontation between Brick and his father, Big Daddy (Gary Cremeans), the clan’s fading patriarch, who favors the disappointing Brick over his successful older son Gooper (Bryce Keil), perhaps because Gooper’s name is Gooper. Cremeans bites into his role as if it were a giant, juicy hamburger, resulting in the production’s most enjoyable character. He’s as miserable as the rest, but tends to revel rather than wallow. He wants to understand what’s eating Brick, but when things get heavy, exposing Brick’s hypocrisy earns Mr. Daddy some harsh truths, triggering the most emotionally honest, fulfilling part of the play.
Act Three lands us back in the maelstrom—or on the tin roof, if you’re feeling indulgent—as Big Mama (Terri Gray), Maggie, and Maggie’s unpleasant sister-in-law Mae (Kristina Charpentier)—whom everyone calls “Sister-Woman” with a straight face—all try to talk over each other while Brick swills all the whiskey in Mississippi. Though grating, the crowd lends requisite mayhem to the play’s finish.
Cat is a tough script full of tough material, and—apparently—tough accents. Some themes are timeless, while some feel stale. Some issues are subtextual, and some wallop you like a cartoon sledgehammer. The play’s stand-in for religion, Reverend Tooker, is the most wealth-obsessed, materialistic character of all. He also turns tail when things get ugly. I don’t know whether to be amused by this commentary or roll my eyes at its obviousness. This is the sort of thing I was pondering long after the lights came up on Reno Little Theater’s debut of its terrific new space. That I was pondering at all is something I credit to Mr. Williams, and to RLT for bringing his classic play to a local stage.