Cat of a Different Color
It's fair to say that there are more poor productions of Tennessee Williams's plays than there are good ones, in part because the writer's elegance can too easily become camp in the hands of inexperienced directors. But one of the rare things about Williams's best work is that it can triumph even in an uninspired production, the marvelous language floating above inept staging and talentless acting.

One such unsinkable Williams play is Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which the Actors Workshop has molded into what director Manning Mpinduzi-Mott calls "a different kind of Cat" -- meaning, primarily, that he's done the play with biracial casting. The effect is a teasing version of the suspenseful work, but one that, despite its provocation, often fails to succeed in its lofty goal of bringing new meaning to the 1955 text.

The play's patriarch, Big Daddy, is played by a black actor, while Big Mama is played by a white one. The moneygrubbing Goober is white, while his alarmingly fertile wife, Mae, is black. The interracial marriages provide an interesting backdrop for some of the play's tension, in particular the fact that Big Daddy has decided he despises Big Mama. As Big Daddy, C.F. Jarmon brings substance to the production with a fire-spitting performance that cleanly illustrates the tensions between the Southern plantation establishment and a black sharecropper who's built a fortune on years of hard work. As his counterpart, Tanya Lunstroth is a gullible and confused Big Mama, a well-mannered punching bag for Big Daddy's hits.

While Mpinduzi-Mott's concept -- the mirror he claims Williams's play provides for racial tension -- is provocative in terms of the parental subplot, it fails in the hands of the cast's younger actors. This is particularly true of Cheray Martin as Maggie the Cat and Hosea Simmons Sr. as Brick. While Martin and Simmons -- both, in this case, African-American -- are full of the misdirected sexual energy necessary for their roles, neither is able to truly pin down Brick's or Maggie's frantic, hopeless characters.

Still, there are spooky images that linger -- race gives Goober's attempt to swindle Big Daddy out of his land a new and uglier significance, and it gives a clarity to the play's holy trinity between Maggie, Brick and Big Daddy. This Cat has the feel of ambitious community theater: It doesn't quite hit the mark it aims for, but it offers the grace of Williams's words with an occasional spark of lightning.

-- Megan Halverson

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof plays through December 7 at the Actors Workshop, 1009 Chartres, 236-1844.

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Megan Halverson