Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Review: 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'

Seeing this blistering production of the American classic by Tennessee Williams at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, near Quakertown, is like seeing it for the first time. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews.

Review: 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'


By Howard Shapiro

Here’s something that might happen with a play, but not with a movie: You go to see it again and because of a different interpretation, or the way an ensemble clicks, or maybe a fresh staging that literally moves the play in a new direction, it’s as if you’ve never seen it before. The production you’re watching has given it a new and different life.

That’s what’s happening at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, where Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, an American classic, is playing out as if our besotted, bewitched and brilliant playwright of the last century had written it last night.

I’ve seen strident Cats and dark Cats and even a pensive one. But I’ve never been swept by a Cat as blistering, fast-moving and, simply, moving as the production Thomas Ouellette has conjured — and with the same cast that bounds on and off the stage in the flighty Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare’s trickster comedy that alternates at the festival in repertory with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Imagine, turning a story into a piece of theater that’s a joy to watch by methodically plucking a taut, raw nerve over three acts. A more modern play, also with an addict at its center and a doomed family patriarch, has become known for just that — the popular August: Osage County. But Williams’ play, more subtle and simpler in its plot, has no big mystery hanging over it to boost its tension, as does August. It’s just one sultry Southern night with a family haunted by the crushing end of stability.

That’s because Big Daddy (Joe Vincent, who makes the character a wily  mix of straightforward and dismissive) is dying – something we learn early on but he doesn’t know. He runs his 28,000-acre plantation in the Mississippi Delta as a captain of Southern power, using the land’s force of nature to complement his own.

His wife (Jo Twiss, in a soaring performance that nicely shifts the play’s energy to her character) is a robust Southern lady he has come to hate. His outlandishly handsome son Brick (daytime TV and theater actor Tom Degnan, piercing in his iceberg indifference) is a failed sports announcer and a top-notch lush, his daughter-in-law Maggie (the hot, dogged Australian actress Eleanor Handley) is a childless, alluring tigress. His other son and daughter-in-law (Rob Kahn and Carey Van Driest) are fertility machines who have provided him with grandchildren but no joy.

And that’s the fabric of the family, accompanied by a laundry list of indelible stains that tracks through Williams’ manufactured worlds: fizzled loyalty, impotence, drunkenness, shame, jealousy, lying and — oh!, let’s not forget — sexual misgivings, which this production puts out there center-stage, even though other Cats may have it drift curiously in the background.

Bob Phillips creates a high-ceilinged plantation bedroom with liquor tables on both sides, and a sweeping outside balcony to the rear, and costume designer Lisa Zinni dresses Handley’s Maggie in a red form-fitter that Handley gives a language of its own. Thom Weaver brings a moonlight to the last scene  that empties Degnan’s Brick of any substance left in him but the booze. And Ouellette’s direction manages to  let in a thin ray of something like hope in the final seconds. This Cat doesn’t have claws, it has daggers.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter.


Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Through August 5 at the Pennyslvania Shakespeare Festival, on the DeSales University campus, 2755 Station Ave., Center Valley, Pa., near Quakertown. Tickets: $25-$52. Information: 610-282-9455 or www.pashakespeare.org. The cast is performing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in repertory with Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.

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About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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