No wonder a repertory company--in this case A Noise Within--wants to do "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." More than most of the well-known mid-20th-century American plays, Tennessee Williams' "Cat" offers a wide variety of juicy parts, male and female.
The very names and nicknames of the characters indicate why actors must purr loudly in anticipation of getting a part in "Cat": Big Mama, Big Daddy, Sister Woman, Brother Man (whose alternative name is even better--Gooper). And of course, Maggie the Cat and her husband, Brick.
A Noise Within's company inhabits the whole clan with relish and skill; there isn't a bad performance in this staging by Julia Rodriguez Elliott and Geoff Elliott (who also plays Brick).
So why does "Cat" still seem a bit ungainly, slightly unfinished?
The play's the thing. "Cat" is on the second tier of Williams' work. Which might not matter much if you haven't seen recent productions of Williams' first-tier plays, "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "The Glass Menagerie"--but in fact, Los Angeles has seen both of them in recent weeks, in excellent productions.
Judging from his printed comments, Williams was proud that "Cat" runs in "real time"--the action picks up immediately where it left off, after each of two intermissions. But the very presence of two intermissions dilutes the impact of this achievement, deflating some of the intensity that otherwise might keep building.
The play's emphasis on individual characters is oddly lopsided. The Cat Woman dominates the first act in her exchanges with Brick and then pretty much disappears during the second, which belongs primarily to Big Daddy's exchanges with Brick.
Two versions of the third act exist in many editions of the text: one that Williams evidently preferred, and another that he submitted under the guidance of the original Broadway director, Elia Kazan. A Noise Within is using the Broadway version, which is better in one major aspect--it returns Big Daddy to the stage, unlike the other version, in which he doesn't reappear. But the Broadway version also has its faults, especially in the last few exchanges. We don't really need to hear the cat metaphor mentioned one additional time before we leave the theater.
Brick is the only character who's a major player in all three acts, yet by his very nature he's not a vital protagonist. He lives in an alcoholic haze, usually detached from what's going on around him. A traumatic incident involving his late friend Skipper and his wife is repeated endlessly in his head and is discussed at least once too often during the play, yet Brick still remains a bit too nebulous to serve as the play's fulcrum.
As Brick, Elliott takes full advantage of the character's occasional angry outbursts to indicate the trouble that is tamed only by booze. He conveys a lot with his silences too, but this character has a built-in speed limit.
Jennifer Erin Roberts' Maggie occasionally conjures up memories of the young Elizabeth Taylor, though not in any slavish way. Jangling her bracelets and showing off her figure, she's quite a sight, but she also takes care to display Maggie's pettier moments.
Mitchell Edmonds is as gruff as Big Daddy should be but also movingly tender in his conversation with Brick. June Claman, not as big as some Big Mamas, walks like a hen, dangles her feet off the edge of the bed in her most serious moments, and offers an endearing daffiness.
Robertson Dean's Gooper and, especially, Jill Hill's Sister Woman are the essence of jauntily lampooned, all-American acquisitiveness. When they're surrounded by their photogenic brood of "no-neck monsters," it's as if we're thumbing through an article about the baby boom in a 1954 copy of Life magazine.
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* "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," Luckman Fine Arts Center, Cal State L.A., 5151 State University Drive. Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m.; Wednesday, Thursday, June 22, 23, 24, 8 p.m.; June 24, 2 p.m.; June 25, 7 p.m. $26 to $30. (323) 224-6420. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.
Jennifer Erin Roberts: Maggie
Geoff Elliott: Brick
Mitchell Edmonds: Big Daddy
June Claman: Big Mama
Jill Hill: Mae
Robertson Dean: Gooper
William Dennis Hunt: Reverend Tooker
Apollo Dukakis: Dr. Baugh
Written by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Julia Rodriguez Elliott and Geoff Elliott. Set by Ann Sheffield. Costumes by Alex Jaeger. Lighting by Ken Booth. Music by Norman L. Berman. Stage manager Susan A. Lyon.