The decaying antebellum columns dripping with Spanish Moss frame the dram unfolding around the dysfunctional Pollitt family in Drury Lane’s revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Under the direction of Marcia Milgrom Dodge, and a first rate cast including Chicago veteran Matt Decaro as Big Daddy, and Maggie “the cat” played by Genevieve Angelson with a purring sensuality, the “mendacity” infecting the entire Pollitt family, allowing them to live until they crack from the truth that can no longer be escaped, is as timely today as it was in 1955.
The dramatic occasion for the family’s eventual denouement is the 65th birthday of Big Daddy, taking place in the bedroom of favorite son Brick (Andrew Bowdwen) and his wife Maggie, decorated in chintz furniture, prominently centered by their unused marital bed and the side bar from where Brick, a too low-key Bowden, drowns his personal disgust in bottles of whiskey. The celebration is held in the bedroom because Brick, in a drunken folly the night before, broke his ankle attempting to jump a too high hurdle at the high school athletic field, and is restricted to hobbling around the bedroom on his wooden crutch. Filling out the celebrants is Big Mama (Cindy Gold), the rejected older son Gooper (Michael Milligan) and his fertile wife Mae (Gail Rastorfer) pregnant with their sixth child.
If anyone is counting, and they all are, Brick and Maggie have no children, a result of their sexless and loveless marriage. This is the theme of Maggie’s breathless aria to kick off the play as she tries to woo Brick into their bed. He spurs her advances and tells her to find a lover instead. Brick, a former star football player, has quit the game of life trading it for the calmness that whiskey brings him, a crutch against the life he no longer cares about.
Lies abound and gird their lives. The big lie that everyone except Big Daddy and Mama are in on is that Big Daddy is dying of terminal cancer. Believing that he has passed his “laboratory tests” and has been rescued from the precipice of death, he goes on an honesty campaign, sick of all the lies and “crap” he has had to endure his whole life. His first target is Big Mama who, while standing holding his birthday cake with its flickering candles, is demeaned and shamed by Big Daddy’s invectives, calling her fat and declaring he never loved her. Clearing the rest of the family from the bedroom, he then moves on to Brick, his favorite son who, when he does die far off in to the future, he would leave the 28,000-acre plantation to if he were to just give up the bottle. This sets off a revelatory and rare conversation between father and son where Brick tells Big Daddy that he drinks “to kill the disgust” and mendacity in his life. Prodded on, Brick reveals the source of his drinking, his best friend Skipper who declared his love for Brick before being hung up on and committing suicide. While protesting that his love for Skipper was “clean” and not “dirty,” and “too rare to be normal,” Skipper’s suicide and Brick’s struggles with his own masculinity, cause him to state that the only way to escape mendacity is death or liquor. Big Daddy confesses his lies lived, including the church and the clubs and, of course, his love for Big Mama. In a final plea to join life, he tells Brick that only pigs have an advantage over humans by their “ignorance of mortality.”
With Big Daddy off to sleep, Gooper and Mae plan to tell Big Mama that he has terminal cancer and that she should plan to turn over the planation to Gooper as the only responsible son. Gooper has conveniently prepared a “draft” will for her to sign. Maggie knowing the scheme protests and attacks Mae and Gooper. Big Mama, too upset at the news, loudly declares that talking like Big Daddy she too is sick of all of this greed and “crap” and throws the papers on the floor. Big Daddy reappears in his bathrobe, a birthday gift from Brick – picked out by Maggie – and now aware of his impending death. Maggie in a final lie to upend Gooper’s and Mae’s scheming, tells Big Daddy that she has his present – the news that she is pregnant and will have a baby before he dies.
In the end, and left alone, Maggie tries again to seduce Brick, hoping to make her lie a reality. In doing so, she professes her love to him, and Brick, in a parley reminiscent of another southern icon Rhett Butler, has the final word: “Wouldn’t that be funny if that were true.”
Drury Lane Theatre Revives a Classic
Drury Lane’s production revives more than a classic play. In our world today, where truth is at a premium, it challenges us to think about the crumbling consequences of mendacity.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Kevin Depinet (Scenic Designer), Sully Ratke (Costume Designer), Driscoll Otto (Lighting and Projection Designer), Ray Nardelli (Sound Designer), Cassy Schillo (Properties Designer), Claire Moores (Wig and Hair Designer), and Sammi Grant (Dialect Coach). The Production Stage Manager is Larry Baker.
Photos courtesy of Drury Lane Theatre.
About the Author:Jon Karmel is a Chicago based lawyer representing labor unions and workers around the Midwest. Jon has been named among Chicago's Top Rated Lawyers, and was selected for inclusion in the 2013-2017 Illinois Super Lawyers. He serves as an adjunct professor at Emory University School of Law, where he teaches trial advocacy skills. He is a frequent speaker on labor and employments topics. Jon recently wrote a book about workers' deaths and injuries, featuring interviews with injured workers and surviving family members. Dying to Work: Death and Injury in the American Workplace.