Kansas City Repertory Theatre dishes up a gleaming Cadillac production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” deftly directed, elegantly designed and festooned with vivid performances from one of the best casts you’re likely to see on any stage.
Unfortunately, “Cat” doesn’t really rank with Tennessee Williams’ finest works, “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “The Glass Menagerie.” No, “Cat” is altogether a different animal — a hot-house melodrama with Southern stereotypes drawn so broadly that inevitably the play becomes more comedy than drama. This production’s fine performances never quite distract us from that inescapable reality. “Cat” is a sort of Neverland version of the Old South, in which naked maneuvering by jealous offspring and in-laws to inherit a vast plantation plays out in a steaming mansion in which open doors allow everyone to know everyone’s business.
The plot is familiar to veteran theatergoers, but for the record, let’s review:
In Act 1 we meet Brick (Nathan Darrow), an indifferent potential heir who hobbles around his bedroom with his foot in a cast (he was drunkenly running hurdles at the high-school track a 3 a.m.) with a whiskey glass that never remains empty long. His wife, the voluptuous Margaret (Vanessa Severo), explains for our benefit that the fact that they are so far childless might endanger their standing when the day arrives for Brick and his brother to inherent the land.
In Act 2 we meet the most interesting and colorfully drawn character in the play: Big Daddy (Paul Vincent O’Connor), the two-fisted patriarch who lords over 28,000-acres of “the best bottomland this side of the Nile.” Big Daddy has had a cancer scare and mistakenly believes he has received a clean bill of health from the clinic. But he’s concerned about Brick, his favorite son, and tries to get inside Brick’s head to find out what, exactly, is tormenting him.
In the final act, the truth has been revealed. Big Daddy, after an initial bout of rage, has rather peacefully resigned himself to his fate. And Margaret takes matters into her own hands, as it were, to guarantee that she and Brick produce a child.
One of the pleasures of this production is to see O’Connor reunited with Merle Moores. (They played James and Mary Tyrone in Kansas City Actors Theatre fine production of “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” a few years ago.) O’Connor commands the stage as Big Daddy, projecting a delicate balance of shrewdness and denial. He suffers no fools. Moores, as the long-suffering Big Mama, performs an impressive balancing act of her own as the plot batters the character between Big Daddy’s verbal abuse and her deep love not only for the cruel patriarch but for her “only son” Brick.
Darrow, a veteran Kansas City actor who in recent years found success in prestige television, gives us a precise reading of Brick as he drinks his way through an afternoon and evening. By turns acerbic and detached, the character dodges the big question in the play: Is Brick gay and is that why he began drinking heavily after the death of his good friend Skipper? Only until Big Daddy grills him on the question does he tell us — but even then the “truth” is open to interpretation.
Darrow also makes a shrewd choice. Since the play has Brick drinking all day, Darrow in the third act shows us the logical result: Brick is sloshed, his speech slurred, not quite sure of his surroundings.
At the Sunday matinee Severo earned a round of applause in Act 1 simply by stepping onstage — evidence that she has become a bona fide local star. As Maggie the Cat, she summons her full skill set, making the most of the comic moments while finding opportunities to lend credible dramatic weight to the performance.
Among the supporting players, Darren Kennedy as Gooper (Brick’s older brother) and Amy Elizabeth Attaway as Gooper’s scheming wife Mae, are fun to watch in roles that are little more than cartoons.
Damron Russel Armstrong plays Rev. Tooker with broad comedic strokes, while music-and-stage veteran Danny Cox makes an agreeable low-key impression as Dr. Baugh. Worth noting: both actors are African-Americans playing traditionally white roles.
Rounding out the supporting cast is Iris Woosley as Sookey, and, as the “no-neck monsters” (Gooper and Mae’s kids), Louisa Bartlett, Lainey McManamy and Benjamin Stoker.
Director Lisa Rothe, making her KC Rep debut, does an impressive job with a talented cast, squeezing as much valid drama from the material as possible. And she gets a big assist from an inspired design team. The entirety of the play unfolds in Brick’s bedroom, which set designer Leel Savage places squarely in the middle of the stage, backed by a wall of liquor bottles that ascend from the floor to the ceiling; the higher they go, the emptier they are. The room has four doors and designer and Savage leaves shadowy playing areas on either side to suggest hallways where characters often come and go.
Theresa Squire’s costumes are equally impressive, appropriately placing the play somewhere in the 1950s, with elegant small touches to convey a sense of sumptuous realism. Cecilia Durbin’s lighting is subtle and dynamic and Lindsay Jones contributes a sound design that incorporates off-stage singing, fireworks and snippets of dialogue.
This script appears to be a combination of Williams’ original version as well as an update in which he substituted rawer cussing for the relatively genteel language that audiences heard in 1955. So you’ll hear some F-bombs. And you’ll hear the N-word, too.
So, like I said, this show is a Cadillac. My advice: Sit back, relax and allow the Southern gothic cliches to wash over you. There’s nothing quite like indulging a guilty pleasure.
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” runs through Sept. 29 at the Spencer Theatre on UMKC campus. Call 816-235-2700 or visit www.kcrep.org.