By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Big news: Big Daddy isn't such a bigot after all. That's one of several important revelations to be found in WaterTower Theatre's breathtaking new production of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, where the emphasis shifts away from "Maggie the Cat" and onto the other feuding family members living under the same roof with ailing fat cat Daddy and his wife, Big Mama.
Glimpsings continues at Undermain Theatre through April 27. Call 214-747-5515.
In the hands of director Terry L. Martin and his first-rate cast, particularly R Bruce Elliott as Big Daddy, Williams' work comes alive, full of comedy soaked with Southern Comfort. All those now-familiar streams of prose sound like overheard conversations here, rather than overplayed clichés. These are real people, a real family arguing over an inheritance, not a chorus of chicken-fried stereotypes (for that, see Burl Ives' take on Big Daddy in Richard Brooks' heavily redacted film version of Cat from 1958).
Martin's production has the audacity to look and feel contemporary. Matthew Anderson's gorgeous set cantilevers Brick and Maggie's shabby chic bedroom-cum-battleground at a sharp catty-corner angle over the audience. Long, gauzy curtains surround the room. In the background backlit screens cleverly silhouette offstage characters.
In this sultry corner of the mansion we see the family and a few guests gathered for Big Daddy's 65th birthday. Beneath the celebratory atmosphere a storm is brewing. Big Daddy's dying of cancer, but his doctors have lied about his lab tests. Big Mama (played by Pamela Peadon) is in denial, swearing that her husband has made a full recovery. Oldest son Gooper (John Wayne Shafer) and wife Mae (Tina Parker), swollen up and out with pregnancy, have dragged their five noisy "no-neck monsters" to the party in hopes of convincing Big Daddy to change his will and leave them the 28,000-acre cotton plantation.
Dampening the festivities even further is sodden Brick (Mark Nutter), the younger of Big Daddy's boys. He's hobbling on crutches after a drunken escapade the night before. Unemployed and unambitious, handsome Brick no longer discusses his short but glorious career as a pro footballer, or his even shorter stint as a TV sportscaster. Now he slops around in a bathrobe, drink constantly in hand, waiting to hear the "click" in his head that will shut out the whines of his shrewish wife, Maggie (Mindi B. Penn), and shut off the grief of losing his best friend Skipper to suicide.
Just how close Brick and Skipper were, of course, is the center of this play's maze of mendacity (Brick's favorite word). When Cat on a Hot Tin Roofpremiered in 1955, the idea of a homosexual football hero, especially one from the Deep (and deeply homophobic) South was controversial and shocking. So shocking that all mention of homosexuality was removed from the movie version starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, the equivalent of taking references to baseball out of The Natural.
In Brick's case, everyone seems to know he and Skipper were lovers but him. Sure, he doesn't sleep with Maggie, but he blames her (and really, what straight man would put up with this chattering magpie of a wife?). Compounding the situation is his jealousy that Maggie made love with Skipper "to make both of us feel closer to you," she tells him.
Which brings us to Act 2, the best of Cat's three. Over 60 minutes of intense, nonstop back and forth, Brick and Big Daddy finally get their secrets out in the open. It's a relief to Big Daddy, who says, "All my life I've been like a doubled-up fist." But after listening to his father crow about his own sexual prowess, Brick strikes back by blurting out the reality of Big Daddy's illness (take that, you old bullshit artist).
Big Daddy returns the favor by angrily outing his son, but then--and here's where Tennessee Williams serves up a big surprise--tells him he understands and it's OK if he and Skipper huddled privately after games. In his 65 years he's learned "tolerance," Big Daddy tells Brick, reminding him that he took over the plantation from "two old sisters," referring to the two gay men who slept together in the very bedroom Brick and Maggie now share.
Bold stuff for 1955. Bold stuff still. And so beautifully written--and at WaterTower so beautifully acted--it makes you ache to share the characters' physical and emotional pain over confronting their deepest secrets. More lies will be hatched by the end of the play, though. Williams wasn't one for happy endings.
Bruce Elliott is a belligerent, brilliant Big Daddy. Pamela Peadon plays Big Mama with the stiffly coiffured brittleness of Nancy Reagan. As the avaricious Gooper and Mae, John Wayne Shafer and Tina Parker are wonderfully annoying. But we feel Gooper's sense of betrayal when he realizes he'll never be the favorite son and pity him for being married to a woman with a voice like a slamming screen door.
As Brick, Mark Nutter has the beefy movie-star looks the character requires and churns with the slow-building rage that carries him wordlessly through Act 1 and toward the fiery confrontation with his father in Act 2.
The only weak link in this Cat is its Maggie, Mindi Penn. Doing Bette Davis' molasses-drippin' accent from Jezebel, Penn speeds through her lines as if she has a cab waiting downstairs. And though her character is supposed to be as ripe as a Georgia peach, Penn looks like she's about to burst out of her lingerie. Her considerable cleavage is cantilevered at a sharper angle than the set.
During a two-hour romp through the story of his life, Curchack also plays a dozen percussion instruments, two recorders and an African thumb piano; screams at the top of his lungs; does some Tuvan throat-singing and a little jazz scatting; makes shadow-puppets for a Punch and Judy show; twirls an imaginary parasol while impersonating the prostitute in London's Soho district with whom he tried, but failed, to lose his virginity; recites sections of The Tibetan Book of the Deadand the Bhagavad Gita; whispers lines of poetry by William Blake; discourses on the principles of Gurdjieff-Ouspensky; pantomimes a lizard, a crow, a wolf and an eagle; prowls the floor like a panther and roars like the mountain lion that attacked him during a spiritual quest in redwood country back in the '70s.
Curchack, a longtime presence on the Dallas theater scene, defies definition. In his offstage life, he's an artist, actor, writer, director, composer, loving father, college professor and ardent student of various Eastern philosophies. In his show, he's part Spalding Gray, part Lenny Bruce, working blue and yakking till he's blue in the face about his journey out of the "little blue-collar cul-de-sac in Queens" where he grew up.
He has had some remarkably far-flung adventures. He's smuggled hashish. He's studied the art of "poor theater" with devotees of Jerzy Grotowski and sat at the feet of several famous swamis. Sometime around the Summer of Love, he narrowly avoided being intimately interfered with by a scary redneck truck driver with whom he hitched a ride west.
Using evocative language and his rangy, expressive limbs, Curchack throws himself full-bore into Glimpsings, which he calls "the world premiere of me playing me." Whirling through his show like a caffeinated dervish, he gives the audience more than mere glimpses of who he really is. And in his writing, there are sparks of brilliance.
Talking about his childhood shyness, he recalls going to a grammar-school dance and trembling with fear at the "prepubescent band of Bacchae" facing him across the floor. A happier memory finds young Fred pleasuring himself to a Life magazine spread featuring dancers from the Broadway cast of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
A lot of funny, odd, fascinating things have happened to Fred Curchack on his way to the stage and this stage of his life. But watching him act out so many personal highs and lows, it's hard to tell whether he's a daring performer willing to bare his soul for the sake of artistic truth or merely a middle-aged nincompoop in love with his own voice, working out a lifetime of "issues" before a paying audience.
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