By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Leave it to Tennessee Williams to pick the perfect name for a character in the throes of an emotional breakdown: Brick. Failed pro football player, miserable husband to the sexually pent-up Maggie, Brick Pollitt is a crumbling hulk of a man, one of three central figures afraid to face hard truths about their lives in Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, now playing in a super-sized production at Dallas Theater Center.
He's almost always onstage, but Brick, played at DTC by out-of-towner Rick Stear, says hardly a word until his second-act confrontation with his father, the fearsome Big Daddy, portrayed with explosive comic energy by another import, TV and film actor Dakin Matthews. For most of the first hour of the play, which unfolds in real time over one evening in an upstairs corner of Big Daddy's Southern Gothic manse, Brick is the peripheral figure slumped in a chair, his leg in a cast from a wee-hours stunt at the high school athletic track.
Brick and his busted ankle are well plastered before the action begins. The occasion is Big Daddy's 65th birthday, and the house is a tumble of chattering relatives, their squealing "no-neck monster" kids and other guests. Brick wants no part of any party. Slugging down whiskey like it's Gatorade, he stays in his and Maggie's bedroom (where he sleeps apart from her on a couch). He drinks, sulks and waits for the "click" in his head that will turn down the volume on his noisy inner demons.
Pick a demon, any demon. This being Tennessee Williams, Brick's psyche is a carnival of animus. His alcoholism has grown out of pain, longing, loneliness and confusion about his sexuality. He's the damaged product of indulgent wealth and parental smothering, and he harbors a classic Peter Pan complex. He's also suffering deep-seated guilt over the recent suicide of his best friend Skipper.
Brick pathologically mourns the "one good, true thing" he ever cherished—his relationship with Skipper. Before killing himself, we find out late in the play, Skipper confessed his real feelings to Brick, but only after being lured into Maggie's bed for an ill-fated affair that even Maggie admits was an attempt to connect them to the Brick they both desperately loved.
The Pollitt family is a right royal mess with a heap of troubles, but on the night of Big Daddy's birthday, Brick's are the least of them. Big Daddy's dying of inoperable cancer. Nobody wants to tell him, so after several episodes of kicking and screaming among the kin, it's left to a defeated, depressed, deeply inebriated Brick to blurt out the news. The only relief for Big Daddy in his darkest hour is Maggie's sudden revelation that she's pregnant with Brick's baby—a lie she hopes to rectify with some post-party sack time.
As dramatic plots go, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is Williams at his most cunning and brilliant. It has everything: sex (gay and straight), lies (the play's favorite catchword is "mendacity"), money (Big Daddy's a rich 'un who hasn't signed a will yet) and treachery (Brick's brother Gooper and sister-in-law Mae, parents of the "monsters," are the scheming villains of the piece). One character neatly sums up Cat's universal theme: "A family crisis brings out the best and the worst in every member."
The Pollitts' family crisis certainly brought out the best in the playwright. Even with death as the unseen party guest, the play resounds with humor. Maggie, played by Fort Worth-born actress Lorca Simons, mocks Gooper and Mae's terrible children in the funny/hateful way we all mock the voices and gestures of our most despised relatives and in-laws. Big Daddy, in the tour de force face-off with Brick, bellows and snorts like a bull elephant as he boasts of his sexual prowess and his desire to get away from Big Mama and get it on with a young gal he plans to "smother" with diamonds and "choke" with minks. Big Mama, played by Laurie Kennedy, heaves herself into a hoedown hula over her husband's miraculous "recovery" and calls for "her only son," Brick, even as her other son, Gooper (Dallas actor Matthew Gray), stands a few feet away looking as wounded as the fat kid picked last at recess.
There's not a word or moment wasted in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—the title being a reference to the uncomfortable course of lies each character navigates. Despite creating the feeling of a house full of hustle and bustle, the play boils down to a series of long conversations between two characters at a time. First it's Maggie and Brick, going at it in their bedroom as they prepare for the dinner party. Then it's Brick and Big Daddy, forcing each other to say things neither wants to hear. Then it's a free-for-all among the Pollitts before it all comes back to Maggie and Brick.
This production is directed by Richard Hamburger, DTC's artistic director, who leaves the theater next spring after 15 years there. He's tried to stretch Cat into epic proportions. It certainly looks great on the Kalita Humphreys stage. Scenic designer Christopher Barreca has created a gigantic room for Maggie and Brick to roam around in. Those inward-leaning, see-through two-story walls drip with suggestions of mold and Spanish moss. Doors are rendered at odd geometric angles, and the floor rakes sharply, giving the set a discomfiting fun-house air.
In front of this powerful scenery, the family circus unfolds, and here is where Hamburger's cast doesn't completely measure up to the grandness of its surroundings. Physically, Rick Stear is too slight to be believably Brick-like. He's shorter and less visibly muscular than Lorca Simons' Maggie (or maybe that's the impression he gives with his slumped-down posture). Stear's Brick is so peripheral, at times he disappears, overwhelmed by a super-frenetic Maggie. Simons, her mouth rouged into a crimson smear, interprets her character as cynical and tough. When she spits out the line "We don't live together—we occupy the same cage," she's a Maggie who's less purring sex kitten and more hissing jungle cat. Hamburger even has Brick in lion tamer mode, fending off an advancing Maggie with an upraised chair.
The performances that keep this Cat hopping are Matthews' Big Daddy and Kennedy's Big Mama. They are a perfect match, the only two actors who truly own and command their roles in the play. Even leaning into the comedy more than some actors would (Burl Ives was scary-serious in the 1958 movie version), Matthews carries Big Daddy as a proud, loving man desperately trying to hang onto life while enduring physical agony. If he chooses to believe Maggie's fable about a baby coming, it's because facing any more truth, at least on this night, would be unbearable. It's Big Daddy's party and he'll lie if he wants to.