by Lynn on May 27, 2011

in The Passionate Playgoer

Moya O’Connell as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Photo by David Cooper.

At the Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Written by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Eda Holmes. Designed by Sue LePage. Lighting by Kevin Lamotte. Original music and sound by John Gzowski. Starring: Corrine Koslo, Patrick McManus, Jim Mezon, Moya O’Connell, Gray Powell, Nicole Underhay.

Produced by the Shaw Festival.

What do you do if the rival for your husband’s love and attention is his intense memory of another man? Such is the dilemma of Maggie, the ‘cat’ of Tennessee Williams’ towering play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which opened Thursday at the Shaw Festival.

Maggie and her husband Brick have come to Brick’s family’s home to celebrate the 65th birthday of Brick’s father—Big Daddy. Brick’s mother Big Mama, his brother Gooper, Gooper’s pregnant wife Mae and their five children, are there as well to celebrate. Big Daddy and Big Mama are also relieved to know that Big Daddy’s recent ill health is not cancer as they thought, but a spastic colon. Or that’s what Big Daddy and Big Mama have been told. The reality is in fact cancer and the bad news is being kept from them until after the birthday celebrations. What is at stake is the huge, rich family plantation. Gooper and Mae are angling for Big Daddy to will it to them and not Brick. The problem is that Big Daddy thinks he will live forever, and never liked Gooper. Brick is Big Daddy’s favourite.

Brick was a football star. Then a sports announcer until he was fired. It’s been downhill through drink from then on. What set him on his downward spiral is the death of his great, good friend Skipper. They played football together, travelled to games and roomed together on the team road trips. Hints suggest that Skipper’s feelings towards Brick were more than platonic. There are also suggestions that Brick rebuffed Skipper because of it, which set Skipper on his own road to drink, and finally killed him.

Left out of these feelings is of course Maggie. As she tells Brick, she and Skipper both loved him so much but didn’t have the same feelings returned, that Maggie looked to Skipper for some physicall relief as a way of getting closer to Brick, with disastrous results. Since then Brick has not slept with Maggie. She tells him she loves him but is consumed by loneliness and longing for him.

Soon after they arrive at Big Daddy’s house Brick went to the local athletic track and tried to jump the hurdles, drunk at 3 a.m. reliving his old glory. He didn’t clear the first one, fell and broke his ankle. Now he hops with the use of a crutch, usually to the liquor cabinet. He tells Maggie that he is drinking until he feels the ‘click’, that point in his drinking where he feels peaceful and calm.

Lies and painful truths blanket this complex, deeply moving play. It took guts and daring for Tennessee Williams to deal with the subjects that he did in 1955, when the play first opened on Broadway.

He didn’t write characters that were larger than life. He wrote them overflowing with it; pulsing with it even as the will to live seeped out of them. Maggie ‘the cat’ does not play her sexuality. She just is. And if there is an actress who can act as sensual, and be as moving and consumed with longing as Maggie is, it’s Moya O’Connell. O’Connell glides across the stage, poses with allure, and yet is skittish. She tries to corner and confront Brick with as much energy as he tries to avoid her. And yet her looks, creased brow and tight smile convey the longing and loneliness that fills her life. O’Connell gives a performance full of such emotional depth and detail that even her stillness speaks volumes.

She is equally matched by Gray Powell as Brick. He is restless and haunted as he shifts himself, crutch and all, to the liquor cabinet until after many glasses of whiskey, he will feel the calming ‘click’. Brick has a far-away look as he shuts out almost anybody who tries to get too close to him. He is languid and off-handed with Maggie as she tries to break through to him. His calmness when he tells her he can’t stand her is devastating. His second Act verbal sparing with Big Daddy is mesmerizing.

If there is a quibble it’s that Powell is too stingy with the drinks he pours. They are almost dashes of liquor when one would expect gushes to be poured. Brick goes to the bottle often. But it’s how much that is poured that’s in question.

As Big Daddy, Jim Mezon is like a controlled explosion of emotion and contempt. He begins almost at ‘level 10’ and doesn’t let up. In a lesser actor this would be one noted. Mezon is a superb actor. There is nuance, subtlety, power, and sensitive understanding in this performance. He does not accuse Brick of anything, but he does understand why he is troubled because of the death of Skipper. That is a revelation.

As Big Mama, Corrine Koslo gives a beautiful performance of a roaring, suffocating woman who has to muscle her way into her loved ones’ lives. Her husband treats her with disdain. She is not embraced by her children. She has to fight against it all and she does with her overbearing effort.

As Gooper, Patrick McManus plays him for all his wiliness, but there are moments when Gooper looks crushed when he is ignored and passed over for his brother. Those reactions hit to the heart. And as Mae, Nicole Underhay is masterful at conveying Mae’s feigned sweetness and concern, but with a hard smile and a piercing look.

Sue LePage’s design of Brick and Maggie’s bedroom evokes haunting memories and decay; and the clothes reveal and conceal with style.

Director Eda Holmes has realized the explosive emotions and the power of the play. Her direction of the last minutes of the production are especially moving. The result is an often electrifying always compelling production.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof plays at the Royal George Theatre until October 23.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ronna June 20, 2011 at 3:33 pm

As a gift for my birthday, my boyfriend, Bruce, took me to see ‘Cat’ on June 18, 2011. At the ripe age of 53, it was my first time seeing a live play. The first act drew me past my self-conscious awareness of being in a theatre watching a live play surrounded by seasoned play-goers; I was captivated! The quality of the production and the wonderful performance of all the actors (especially Moya O’Connell as Maggie and Jim Mezon as Big Daddy) makes me want to see this play again. I absolutely loved the experience and the sweet thoughtfulness of my boyfriend for his birthday gift to me.

As an aside, I grew up in Niagara-on-the-Lake and attended the Brock Theatre (now known as The Royal George) almost every Friday with my friends to see the latest movie. 35 cents got you in the door, 15 cents bought bagfuls of candy at intermission. I remember the split red leather seats catching my clothing as I moved and the shushing of adults trying to keep us from talking and giggling for the duration of the movie. Coming back to this theatre after a 40 year absence was like coming home and I’m glad it was to see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It was a wonderfully memorable experience, one I want to repeat again.

Thank you Bruce! I love you.


2 Lynn June 20, 2011 at 9:47 pm

Dear Ronna,

What a great message. I’m so glad you enjoyed that wonderful production. You must see more theatre. I suggest DRAMA AT INISH at the Courthouse Theater at the Shaw Festival. Wonderful.


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