by ANNA ROSENSWEIG
The Guthrie’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is electric. The first few minutes of this Tennessee Williams classic promise a riveting theatrical experience, a promise that the rest of the show fulfills. Haunting in both its beauty and its sadness, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof achieves a kind of poignancy that is as rare as it is arresting.
First performed in 1955, Cat takes place in a bedroom in the mansion of a wealthy Tennessee cotton tycoon, known to his family as Big Daddy (David Anthony Brinkley). The bedroom’s occupants are Big Daddy’s favorite son Brick (Peter Christian Hansen), and his wife Maggie (Emily Swallow). The drama unfolds in one fateful evening, during which a battle for succession over the family’s wealth and land (a considerable kingdom stretching out across 28,000 acres) reaches its climax. Not only does this evening take place on Big Daddy’s birthday, but it’s also the evening on which he receives word about his cancer diagnosis.
We learn about the evening’s stakes from Maggie who, having married into the family’s wealth from a less advantageous social situation, is determined to secure her and Brick’s future. Even though Brick is Big Daddy’s favorite son, there’s a real possibility that Brick’s brother Gooper (Chris Carlson) will inherit the family’s land and fortune, as Brick has recently become mysteriously despondent and withdrawn. He gets drunk every night and refuses to speak to Maggie about what’s gone wrong. This doesn’t stop Maggie from speaking, however. Almost the entire first act consists of a monologue directed at Brick in which she tries various tactics to rouse him into caring about their fate.
The sheer physicality in her delivery of these extended urgings is just one of the impressive aspects of Emily Swallow’s compelling performance as Maggie. Responsible for not only Maggie’s characterization, Swallow must also paint portraits of the rest of the family, and she accomplishes both tasks deftly. There’s a subtle dynamism to Swallow’s performance, which allows her effectively to communicate the complexity of Maggie’s resolve. At one moment she’s sympathetic, at the next, off-putting and shrill. Swallow brings the perfect amount of pathos to the role, making Maggie simultaneously relatable and mystifying. While it’s the range of Swallow’s vocal expression and line readings that strike in the first act, it’s the sorrow and tenacity on her face that stands out in the second.
Swallow’s Maggie also has excellent chemistry with Peter Christian Hansen’s Brick. The two move around and talk to each other like people who have caused one another great pain as well as pleasure. Likewise, the whole ensemble is to be commended not only for their individual performances but for their concerted believability as a strained family. Standouts include David Anthony Brinkley, who crackles as Big Daddy, and brings out the extent to which the patriarch’s grasp over his family and fortune is waning. Michelle O’Neil is also excellent as Mae, the champion breeder wife of Gooper. Mae is off-putting in her opportunism, but O’Neil’s performance elicits sympathy for her as well, bringing out the parallels between her situation and Maggie’s, despite their rivalry.
The Guthrie’s stage is no stranger to gorgeous set pieces, but Rachel Hauck’s set is exceptional in its beautiful evocation of such a strained interior space. Hauck manages to achieve both a deep sense of the room’s intimacy and the impression that there are vast tracks of land in the distance. Three sets of huge doors mark the entrances to Maggie and Brick’s bedroom, but the walls themselves are only suggested. This allows for the sense that the exterior pressures are constantly impinging on this interior space, and that events unfolding within have the utmost importance for the people and land without. The set’s duality highlights the drama’s preoccupation with the need for privacy and the impossibility of finding it.
Director Lisa Peterson’s staging takes full advantage of this profoundly intimate and yet decidedly public space. The battle of wills that takes place between Maggie and Brick amidst the comings and goings of other family members is explicated as much through their spatial relationships to each other as through their words. In fact, the dubious nature of verbal communication is a major theme of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Peterson’s staging reflects how physical distance and proximity often say what words will not, or cannot. One scene in particular takes on the frantic quality of a family gathering in which bringing everyone together is as impossible as it is essential. Other scenes are striking in how the family suddenly appears to be arranged in carefully constructed tableaux. Although these tableaux emerge suddenly, it’s their nuance that makes them so effective, and that allows them to avoid coming across as distractions or gimmicks.
It’s the way that Peterson’s staging and Hauck’s set complement each other that brings out the strengths of the actors’ considerable talents, and that makes the show so moving. I’ve come to expect beautiful sets from the Guthrie. And yet I’ve often felt that their beauty tends to outpace the emotional charge of the theater’s productions. Where Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is concerned, nothing could be further from the truth. The show’s pathos meets the set’s grandeur and delivers a tragedy that is both satisfying and unnerving.