Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

August 17, 2011

The Gate Theatre’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a pretty little thing, with a number of attractive outfits, a sun seared set and a cast that are either easy on the eye or perfectly suited to the roles they inhabit. Unfortunately it’s a tepid, literal staging with no apparent reason to justify it bar a run on the box office.

A Southern clan descends on the family plantation to toast the good health and birthday of its patriarch Big Daddy (Owen Roe). At least that’s what he and wife Big Mama (Marion O Dwyer) are led to believe. His eldest child, Gooper (David O Meara) and his wife Mae (Donna Dent), a “monster of fertility”, have really suspended their summer migration after recognising the cancer in Big Daddy the previous spring. Here to curry favor and wrestle control of the 28,000 acres from the favored son Brick (Richard Flood) they parade their brood of “no-neck monsters” about like “animals at a county fair”, a constant reminder of Brick and wife Maggie’s (Fiona O’Shaughnessy) failure to produce an heir of their own.

Coiled within each of these characters is a deep-rooted desire to sweeten the bitter bile of regret, while trying to hide whatever tales they’ve spun. The stage is set for thunder and for lightning as peals of truth crack from both Brick and Big Daddy, shattering the shambolic facade. But the performative charge required to make this happen never springs forth.

“I’m not living with you. We are occupying the same cage,” hisses Maggie during the plays opening quarter, where she lays it down the line to her husband, a (supposed to be) intense confrontation about the sexless state of their marriage. Yet the actress is as trapped as the character she portrays, filling the stage with her untrolled accent, her grandiose mannerisms and her sudden, definite movements. Trying to spur her indifferent husband to action she demurs, demands and implores with him to stand up to his brother, to stand up for their marriage or at least stand up to himself.

However, confronted by Flood’s apathetic performance, she is left hanging with only one place for her to go to prevent the show becoming lifeless. Up!

This cripples the Cat, taking away her wit, her guile and most importantly her animality making her more like a petulant child than a woman whose sensual smarts helped her escape her impoverished roots. Pacing the stage, she rattles out her lines, flooding the space between the words where meaning exists and thinning the richness of Tennessee’s text.

Flood is a listless Brick, doing little more than raising his voice – or his glass – to show the guilt he carries over the death of his friend, Skipper. Clinging to Brick’s dispassion Flood never gives us enough to wonder what exactly the nature of this friendship. Was it as pure as he professes? Vacant stares simply doesn’t give us enough to make us feel for his plight.

While he and O’Shaughnessy do a good job at recalling a memory they fail to impart how it makes them feel and their performances lack the little details that really make a character come alive. Brick seems no drunker at the end of the play than he did at the start while when trying on dresses for the party, O’Shaughnessy never even looks in the mirror to examine the clobber she wears like weapons. And for a show set in the sweltering Missippipi Delta, and staged in the sweltering Gate Theatre, only once did any character acknowledge the elements outside of what was written into the script.

Things improve greatly when the ensemble turns up. Marion O Dwyer once broke my heart by simply not returning to the stage (That Was Then) and while I haven’t seen her display that quality in her most recent work, the foundation she lays while on view makes the decimation of her character all the more devastating when she’s out of it. Owen Roe, a crude Big Daddy, is a wheezing, squinting, panting source of clarity that pulls the truth out of his son before being confronted with his own. And David O Meara and Donna Dent as Brother Man and Sister Woman, are as sniveling as you might expect, yet rise above being stock villains by tapping into the sense of entitlement that we all possess.

Despite these solid performances it never really feels like anything other than a period piece. In a time when we are all fighting against a return to our impoverished past and question as to what constitutes a true marriage(children according to Sister Woman and Lucinda Creighton) the fact that director Mark Brokaw couldn’t make this play have any emotional resonance makes you question why they staged it at all.


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