Review: Tennessee females rule in San Jose Stage’s ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’

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Big Daddy (Randall King, left) chats with his son Brick (Rob August) in San Jose Stage’s production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at San Jose Stage Company through March 3rd. (Dave Lepori photo)

Brick and Maggie both take up space in the sweltering static bedroom that resides within the Mississippi Delta, satin sheets adorning the soft mattress that have gone unused by the distant couple. While Maggie moves through every hint of the bedroom, flitting across the floor attempting to find new ways to try and engage Brick, he only stares forward. The only path he paves is from his chair to the mini bar, a single crutch bearing him down as he trudges onward.

It is pathetic to watch Maggie, a lovely Southern Belle who lives within this icy cold world suffocated by the Southern humidity, a woman who spends much of her time yearning for the touch of Brick. Multiple times, she lets her robe slink slowly off her body, revealing a translucent white nightgown. Will this be the reveal that finally pushes Brick’s eyes upward? Because right now, the only thing Brick stares into is the bottom of a highball glass, one that is never empty for long.

San Jose Stage’s production of the 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning play “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is loaded with foreboding. It’s a fierce production, searing in many places, with fine performances that are strewn throughout the stage led by assured pacing from director Lee Sankowich.

Despite the many great touches created by the cast, the play soars on the wings of a Tennessee Williams staple – the longing and passion of his memorable female characters.

Both Brick (a torn and depressed Rob August) and his wife Maggie (a sharp and focused Allison F. Rich) have found themselves gathering for the birthday of the Pollitt patriarch, Big Daddy (stalwart Randall King). While there is certainly something to celebrate, which would be Big Daddy beating cancer after a stay at a clinic, others know this is not the case.

This is where Williams’ writing is masterful, with rich characters who have been leveled by life. They are also being driven by mysteries and secrets. While Big Mama (a fantastic Judith Miller) is overjoyed with the news of her husband staving off the deadly disease, those who know the truth are now positioning themselves to get into first position for the family’s cotton empire and vast land ownings.

Certainly, Brick is not thinking about this, or anything else really. He is dealing with a secret of his own, and that’s driving his current life, which exclusively includes drinking plenty in his bathrobe. That secret, which looks at the true nature of a relationship he had with his recently deceased football teammate Skipper, causes him to flail on the floor in rage and drink, drink, drink.

To watch Brick’s inner-torture unfold is not just thrilling in the present day but also terribly exciting when viewing from the prism of theatre history. Certainly, this is masterful storytelling, but the taboo of this topic in the mid-50s must have been sublime. The weight of the world rests on Brick’s broad shoulders, creating a viciously high brick wall for Maggie to climb over.

Historically speaking, Maggie is another in the many wonderful women of Williams. Amanda, Alma, Blanche and Maggie all live in a world of yearning, a complicated place where the beauty of life is just out of tantalizing reach.

Yet it’s not just the women who find life out of reach in this misogynist, patriarchal society. The undercurrent of the play and its dealing with race is problematic. The two black characters in this play are relegated to servants with facile dialogue, with Big Daddy’s hinted and blatant views on race and actions permeating the piece.

Maggie has no agency yet pursues a life with full disillusion. She has landed the golden ticket after living much of her life in poverty – marrying into a wealthy family. But when it comes to that inheritance, will she be in first position? This is where the riches of Rich come into play. In this role, just notice her eyes – they are fully calculated, much like an alley cat who is constantly on the edge, looking for the next critical move. When finally backed in a corner, she scratches with sharp precision.

Inheritance is not a discussion at all though, because Big Mama refuses to see anything relating to the expiration of her husband. In this role, Miller is wonderful. Whether it is her joy of having the family gather to celebrate or flatly denying what is clear, her actions are loud. It is quite the range that she showcases, an energetic and visceral performance.

The show’s technical aspects are served well by the design team in the quirky Stage space. Giulio Cesare Perrone’s unit set is heavy on whites, with various entrances and exits. And while the fourth wall breaking was a bit clunky and distracting, Sankowich’s blocking is quite fluid.

The play’s through line is the concept of mendacity, the idea that lying is the equivalent of living. The denouement of the play hammers this critical point home and is handled with aplomb. “Mendacity is a system that we live in,” says Brick. “Liquor is one way out an’ death’s the other.”

If mendacity is the system they in fact live in, Brick’s cynicism may be hard to argue. Maggie the cat, in her desperation, makes a critically important discovery. And with that discovery, mendacity just might get her off a hot tin roof and finally, into the cool sheets of her bed.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

San Jose Stage Company presents “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Lee Sankowich
The Word: A complicated world of lies, race and deception is created wonderfully by the tight cast.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
San Jose Stage Company
490 South First Street, San Jose, CA
Through March 3rd
Running Time: Two hours, 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission
Tickets range from $32 – $72
For tickets, call (408) 283-7142 or visit www.thestage.org

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