Theater review

Movies get in our heads and live there for a lifetime. Try to imagine Gone with the Wind with anyone but Vivien Leigh as Scarlett. Likewise, think of any actress but Liz Taylor in her slip in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

As I took my seat at Circle Theatre, I tried to imagine someone else playing Maggie the Cat. But Kimberly Logan is not only convincingly passionate; she really makes the title role her own.

This new production is a largely successful rendition of Tennessee Williams’ work. Directed by Jim Schneider, the versatile, vibrant cast provides an ensemble of superb performances.

Williams always considered Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to be his best play. It won him his second Pulitzer Prize for drama, in fact, and definitely follows the classical unity of time and place: There’s but one set and the whole show plays in real time over a nearly three-hour period.

There are lots of juicy roles, though as usual with the playwright, his larger-than-life characters are layered and riveting but not always likable. This verbose three-act play focuses on a wealthy but dysfunctional southern family ripped apart by jealousy, greed, and an inability to face the truth.

Tennessee Williams often put his personal demons on parade. Here, his issues of family conflict, homosexuality, hypocrisy, alcoholism, and fear of illness all figure prominently in the plot.

Sex-starved Maggie, the hot-tempered, ruthlessly determined wife of a drunken ex-football hero, hits the stage in top gear and never lets up in the lengthy opening scene.

Michael Borgmann plays Brick, Maggie’s handsome husband who was broken by the suicide of his best friend a year ago. His career as a TV sportscaster has been completely derailed by his drinking. Now, full of bourbon and self-loathing, he coldly resists the affections of his wife.

Although Maggie’s deeply wounded by his rejection, she remains hopelessly devoted to the self-destructive has-been.

Brick’s role in the first act is basically reactive, punctuated by his non-stop trips to the liquor cabinet. The actor’s sad, panther-like eyes convey his inner turmoil as he responds to his wife in monosyllables. Though the energy seems to be all Maggie’s, Borgmann is the pivot of the play and we keep a constant eye on him. The actor is a master of aggressive nonchalance.

We see Brick’s pain and self-imposed shame, perhaps his own homophobia too, which force him to drink alone until he hears the “click” that provides some brief peace of mind.

Big Daddy, Brick’s domineering, millionaire father who’d started out as a field hand and now owns 28,000 acres of rich Mississippi Delta land, is played by Jim Farrell. The filthy rich plantation patriarch is dying of cancer, yet the family insists he’s in perfect health. This play has many themes but the main one seems to be that relationships are riddled with mendacity. Farrell is both menacing and comic in the role.

Director Schneider ratchets up the pace with each new confrontation but is never afraid to pause to punctuate key moments in the multi-layered story.

The scene in the second act in which Big Daddy confronts Brick’s conflicts seemed to lose energy, however.

If you know the 1958 film classic, starring Liz Taylor and Paul Newman, you may remember some of the more controversial elements of Williams’ play had to be downplayed for the Hollywood censors. Brick’s sexuality was left ambiguous. But frankly, it’s not much clearer here in this, the original text.

Tennessee Williams wrote in closeted times. His fearless treatment of then taboo topics like homosexuality was shocking on Broadway a half-century ago. Though it’s perhaps sacrilege to observe this, for contemporary audiences, his dialogue now often seems annoyingly vague, overwritten – even repetitive. The playwright is never really clear on the actual nature of Brick’s relationship with his close buddy Skipper. But perhaps that was Williams’ point – forcing 1950s audiences to confront their own homophobia.

Doug Deuchler is a retired teacher/school librarian who, when he isn’t reviewing local theater, is a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent and author of several books about Oak Park and surrounding communities.