Saturday, March 8, 2014

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Aaron Lamb (l) as Brick and Russ Holm (r) at Big Daddy

Aaron Lamb (l) as Brick and Helen Harvester as Maggie
Big Daddy and Brick and Maggie the Cat brought the sultry Mississippi Delta to the stage at Harlequin Productions — and it is sizzling hot.

One of the best modern plays ever written, Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is also one of the most challenging to produce. The challenge is how to produce something this dramatic without it being absurdly melodramatic; how to bring roles made famous by the likes of Paul Newman, Burl Ives and Elizabeth Taylor to the stage without begging comparison.

It takes great actors, an outstanding director and a gorgeous set, and that’s exactly what Harlequin gives us with this classic from the 1950s.

Linda Whitney directs a superb cast and she designed the set, which marvelously transports the audience to a sweltering summer night in a plantation home in the Delta. I was born and grew up down there, and I recognize that place — not to mention the accents and the mannerisms which were spot on.

Brick and Maggie’s bedroom is richly outfitted, and the double doors to the balcony open on a scene beautifully lighted by Amy Chisman with the ideal dramatic touch of hanging Spanish moss and a hovering harvest moon. It’s a marvel the audience wasn’t sweating.

The cast is outstanding. Even though time on stage is dominated by the four main characters, it feels like an ensemble with everyone from the preacher and the doctor to the delightfully exuberant no-neck monsters and the servants blending like catfish and hushpuppies.

The majors are: Helen Harvester as Maggie, Aaron Lamb as Brick, Russ Holm as Big Daddy and Rachel Fitzgerald as Big Mama. Filling out the cast are: Scott C. Brown as Gooper, Rosemary Ford as Rosemary the maid, Robert Humes as Thomas the butler, Maggie Lofquist as a majorly pregnant Mae, Grant McGee as the doctor, David Wright as the preacher, and Derek Jenson, Loren Kattenbraker and Owen Hutchison as the no-neck monsters.

Harvester pulls no stops in her portrayal of Maggie the Cat. She slinks and bellows and flirts seductively, and she makes you believe there is nothing too outrageous for conniving and desperate Maggie.

Fitzgerald and Holm are a match made in heaven as the tumultuous husband and wife Big Daddy and Big Mama. Watch the subtle changes in Fitzgerald’s facial expressions, and then watch her bellow and rant, and watch Holm change in a flash from an arrogant and domineering patriarch to a man suddenly scared to death by the realization of his own mortality; watch him browbeat and then tenderly commiserate with Brick, the favorite son who is also the most troubled and troubling.

And watch the nuanced changes and the raw humanity of Lamb’s Brick. Brick has to be one of the most difficult characters ever to grace a stage because he is at first despicable; yet there is something gentle and appealing underneath the outer shell of this drunken, broken and spiteful man. In every other performance I have seen, including Paul Newman’s masterful film portrayal, it is hard to see Brick’s humanity because he is always played by drop-dead handsome leading men. But Lamb’s Brick, while also handsome, is more human and vulnerable than any I’ve seen.

If I may diverge for a moment, I have noticed a phenomena Lamb’s performance that I also noticed in Bruce Story-Camp’s portrayal of Juror #8 in 12 Angry Men a Lakewood Playhouse, and that is that characters such as these are best not played by big-name stars. In both instances I thought the local actors were more real and more believable than the Hollywood stars who are known for these roles. The same comparison can be made between Holm’s Big Daddy and Burl Ives’ larger-than-life portrayal of the same character.

Lofquist’s gestures and expressions as Mae are comic gold, and Brown makes his considerable acting skills disappear into the reality of Gooper (who has been more of a caricature in other performances I’ve seen).

Harlequin’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of the best plays I’ve seen so far this season. It is a long play, almost three hours with two intermissions.

WHEN: Thursdays through Saturdays, 8p.m., Sundays 2 p.m. through March 29
WHERE: State Theater, 202 E. 4th Ave., Olympia
TICKETS: prices vary, call for details
INFORMATION: 360-786-0151;

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