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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Starts Slow But Eventually Comes to Life

The set-up:

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was the personal favorite of playwright Tennessee Williams; I share his high evaluation. It covers many themes and ties them together deftly, it avoids the melodrama of some of his work, it reaches into the human heart with surgical precision, and it is strikingly original. It is the self-contained family drama of a wealthy plantation owner, but it also references the culture of this country, and of the world.

Big Daddy, the plantation owner, is dying of cancer but the truth has been withheld from him. His elder son, Gooper, seeks to gain the inheritance of the plantation, but Big Daddy dislikes him, preferring his younger son, Brick. Brick, however, is floating in an alcoholic haze, to the despair of his wife, Maggie, with whom he has not slept for some time.

The execution:

The work is so powerful that it transcends casting errors, with which this production is rife. Stage Door, Inc. tends sometimes to use inexperienced actors, usually in minor roles, an admirable policy since it gives beginning actors necessary stage experience. Here, however, the casting of the principal roles of Maggie and Brick is problematic.

Gretchen Odum plays Maggie, and she is attractive but not stunningly so. One of the play's major mysteries is why Brick won't sleep with her, with the subtext "since she is such a babe!" It is one reason Big Daddy is so fond of her, and Odum stops short of the "babe" category. More importantly, she rattles off her lines as though the words were lemmings racing toward a cliff, with little variation in inflection. She and Brick are alone on stage for most of the first act, and Maggie is waging a continuing campaign to win Brick back, but we see none of this intention, none of the determined charm, the manipulation. Instead, we simply hear chatter.

Christopher Keller plays Brick, a former top athlete, and is close to physically plausible, though slight in build for a football player. He presents Brick as sullen and depressed, focused on his compulsive drinking. The latter is right, but Brick should be, not depressed, but absorbed in his own world of addiction, with self-awareness, and a sense of mockery. Keller's interpretation is so flat, combined with Odum's meaningless verbiage, that the first act is largely tedious.

Brick had a close best-buddy relationship with football teammate Skipper, who is a recent suicide, and the nature of that male bonding leads to much speculation, and to some fascinating revelations, about the behavior of both Maggie and Brick. The large group scenes in Act Three are wonderfully written, and well-played, the dramatic control of a master playwright is apparent, and Marc Anthony Glover's skill as director re-emerges.

Tad Howington plays Big Daddy, in a masterful, intriguing performance, though his Southern accent sometimes elides into a mumble. Lisa Tolman plays Big Momma, and couldn't be better, as she finds Big Momma's dignity, power, and fierce love for Big Daddy. I saw Mildred Dunnock, a great actress, originate the role on Broadway, and prefer Tolman's interpretation. Vanessa Pearson plays Mae, Gooper's wife and mother of many obnoxious children, and she is wonderful, with great timing and reactions. Tyler James Sanders as Gooper doesn't rise to the level of these actors, though he carries the narrative adequately. The very young Blake Winter plays Buster, the youngest of the children, and provides vitality and depth to a minor role.

Stage Door's sets are invariably outstanding, and Glover here provides a richly detailed period bedroom, with a broad porch off it, and a huge harvest moon hanging in the firmament. The entire set is a marvel of three-dimensional depth. Its only flaw is an unnecessary mirror frame on a vanity table, which, even though the mirror is missing, seriously steals focus, creating a barrier between the events onstage and the audience.

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The lighting is effective, as usual, and the narrative speeds forward with appropriate energy. Odum and Keller find their footing in the later acts, and come to vibrant life, fortunately, since some of the other participants, who enter late, appear to lack stage experience.

The verdict:

A theatrical masterpiece comes to exciting life after a slow first act, and we are reminded again of the genius of Tennessee Williams, and of his incomparable gift for seeing into the human heart, and facing, unblinkingly, truths about human nature.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues through Sept. 1 at Stage Door, Inc. 284 Pasadena Town Square Mall. For information or ticketing, call 832-582-7606 or contact www.stagedoorinc.com.

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