Thursday, October 22, 2015

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams

Daniel Kaemon, Madeline Fair

By Joe Straw

“She said she didn’t love him – five kids later.” 

“Well, why did they have five kids if she didn’t love him? And, why doesn’t she mend their own socks? She sends them here, to the farm, every summer so she can have some time alone to find a husband.”

“Hush now.  Not so loud – ‘kids are in the living room watching TV.”

“They cain’t hear us, they got their ears and eyes glued to that damn TV, sittin’ around, eatin' sugar butter biscuits, and not doin’ nothin’.” – Narrator – Overheard a conversation from my time in the south.

The Group Rep presents Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams, directed by L. Flint Esquerra, and wonderfully produced by Kevin Dobson through November 14, 2015 at The Lonny Chapman Theatre in North Hollywood, California.

Like a soft summer breeze, this Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starts as a breath, a whisper, and a small zephyr of spoken thoughts that enter the fractured crevices of a character’s moral imperfections.  It only takes one trifling odious word said in haste to gather momentum, and unable to stop, these words are like humid winds blown under unlocked doors and out through open windows for all to hear.  

In short, this Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, once seen, is like a perceptual gift that keeps on giving, days after you have seen it.  L. Flint Esquerra, director, leads a skilled ensemble that first elevates the imaginative spirit, first in small increments, and then builds creating a tumultuous storm, lifting to create a truly visual, emotional, and pleasurable feast.

I don’t remember the sound of the bathroom shower running as Margaret (Madeline Fair) enters upstage through the French doors.  Her beautiful dress marked with a buttered biscuit stain by one of them “no-neck monsters”.  But, I do remember the image of Brick (Daniel Kaemon) coming out, soaking wet, with a towel wrapped around his waist shambling over to get a drink.  

Margaret, or Maggie, acts as though this was not a pleasant sight; possibly an accustomed sight, but still one imagines the indecent thoughts coming from her of what she could do with this man, in any type of scenario she could be thinking.  

Margaret and Brick occupy a bedroom in Big Daddy Pollitt’s house and, yes, it is his house.  The house sits in the Mississippi Delta, a cotton plantation of 28,000 acres of the finest farmland “this side of the valley Nile”.   

The Mississippi Delta slides along the Mississippi River in the north and western section of the state of Mississippi. The river battles the banks, constantly pushing the reservoirs forward on its way into the Gulf of Mexico.  

Maggie and Brick share the bedroom once occupied by previous owners, Jack Straw and Peter Ochello (not seen), two male lovers from a forgotten time that secretly walked,  hand in hand, hidden among the white balustrades of the gallery and the Spanish moss.

But now, Brick, a former professional football player and sportscaster, has few words for Maggie who has enough for both of them. And Brick, listening to her despairing reflections, grabs a drink and waits for the alcohol to “click” in his brain in an effort to ease his mental suffering.

But, there is no relaxing with Maggie on the prowl especially when she takes off her stained buttered dress.  And with her sultry demeanor, in her rhythm of walking nylons, she stalks around in her slip, opening her legs and inviting a wet Brick to enter the gates of pleasure.  She pushes, like a purring cat at his ankles, wanting something. Her biological clock is running and at this moment any moisture coming, permeating from either body, is an open invitation for touch.

After all, this is the south and not the barren aridity of the Sahara.

But like an old bubbling coffee pot, there’s more problems brewing.  Big Daddy (Kent Butler) is dying from an advance form of colon cancer. How everybody knows except Big Daddy, Big Mama (Diane Frank), and Brick is a cause for concern, but Maggie is there to tell Brick and she wants him to know that they should start working on an offspring.

L to R: Kyra Schwartz, Todd Andrew Ball, Lily Daugherty, Jacob Accardo, Diane Frank, Andrew C. Grigorian, Mia Banham

Most importantly Maggie doesn’t want Gooper (Todd Andrew Ball) also known as “Brother Man,” his wife Mae (Kyra Schwartz) also known as “Sister Woman,” or their kids, three seen – Buster (Jacob Accardo), Sonny (Andrew C. Grigorian), Trixie (Lily Daugherty), two others (not seen), and with one more on the way, to inherit the 28,000 acres.

Brick’s been drinking too much especially after the death of his friend Skipper, Maggie says that Brother Man and Sister Woman have come down and are making references to Rainbow Hill.

“Place that’s famous for treatin’ alcoholics an’ dope fiends in the movies!” – Margaret

But Maggie, a poor girl from Nashville with no money, does not want Gooper to get the inheritance, and to that end she wants a child, now.

“Then Brother Man could get ahold of the purse strings and dole out remittances to us, maybe get power of attorney and sign checks for us and cut off our credit wherever, whenever he wanted!” – Margaret

“But, Brick?  You still have one big advantage.” – Margaret

Maggie is smart to recognize that Big Daddy dotes on Brick.  She compares that to Big Daddy’s relationship with Gooper and Mae, which Maggie, in catlike fashion, believes to be soiled.

And while they are discussing relationships, Maggie notes they haven’t made love in a long while and that’s not going to work if they want the farm.

You know, if I thought you would never, never, never make love to me again-I would go downstairs to the kitchen and pick out the longest and sharpest knife and stick it straight into my heart…” – Maggie

It is good that Maggie still believes there’s hope in the relationship and is among the living. But, one is not sure what Brick is thinking as he internalizes most of his dialogue.

Still it is Big Daddy’s birthday and Maggie bought a present from Brick for Big Daddy, But Brick believes in his own truth and will not take responsibility for the cashmere bathrobe or sign the card.

“Just write “Love Brick!” for God’s” – Margaret

“No.” – Brick

“You’ve got to.” – Margaret

“I don’t have to do anything.  I don’t want to do.  You keep forgetting the conditions on which I agreed to stay on living with you.” – Brick

Ouch, and very interesting comment that reveals much about their relationship.

Meanwhile, outside on the porch, Mae has practically got her ear glued to the door eavesdropping in on the conversation.  She enters with a bow in her hands, concerned about her children hurting themselves with, just the bow, no arrows.

Mae is up to more than the welfare of her children.  

With Mae gone, Maggie appeals for better judgment in the bedroom.

“…I served my term, can’t I apply for a – pardon?” – Margaret

No such luck. Brick doesn’t want to have anything to do with her and he even goes so far as to tell Maggie to take a lover.  But Maggie can’t see making love to anyone except him.  She quietly locks the door and moves into Brick's direction and tries, mightily, until Big Mama starts banging on the locked door.  

Brick, glad for the interruption, makes his way into the bathroom knowing Big Mama will find a way in.  And she does, practically ignoring Maggie, as she walks in through another door to find Brick in the bathroom.  She tells him that Big Daddy has a spastic colon and everything’s going to be okay.

Everyone knows that’s not the case Mae and Gooper, instead of going on vacation, have managed to show up - with the will in tow. Reverend Tooker (Scott Dewey) feeling God’s graces of bequeath is looking for a new addition to the church.  And Dr. Baugh (Bruce Nehlson) is there.  And they are all there for the celebration of Big Daddy’s birthday?  One thinks, not.

Madeline Fair is tremendous as Margaret, Maggie the cat. Maggie floats in, like a soft breeze, but manages to get all that she wants. Fair gives the character a tremendous arc, demanding in the first act but manages to control the events of the final act with such grace and natural abilities. Maggie has an intuitive knowledge of all the characters in her life and Fair creates a grand distinction for each relationship on stage.  Fair is a stunning creature and this is a performance you must run to see.

Daniel Kaemon is Brick and gives another remarkable performance.  So much is needed for the silent dialogue in the first act when Brick, drinks, and has little to say. Brick has a tremendous amount going on underneath, a silent dialogue filled with humor and a truth that he cannot release, trapped in a body wanting to get out, to come out, and not finding the will or the way. Kaemon does an extraordinary job of confessing his physical hunger for Skipper without coming right out and saying it.  Oh! The mendacity! Kaemon's performance is terrific!

I was caught up in the performance of Kyra Schwartz as Mae.  Schwartz manages to take that self-important Southern charm and uses it to her advantage in appearance and in the deeds as the character. Mae wants the farm and will stop at nothing to get it including dropping six kids like a common house cat, to prove her love to the entire family.  She eavesdrops to secure an advantage and listens in on her sister-in-law's bedroom to find out what’s not going on in there. Schwartz gives a brilliant performance and one that is truly recognizable from my time in the south.

One would think that Todd Andrew Ball would have the most difficult role as Gooper.  He is in an invidious position coming in with his nice fancy Memphis lawyer suit, dragging his wife and kids with him, and with a will in tow knowing full well that Big Daddy is dying.  We know what he wants; he’s got six kids and a wife to support.  But he’s got a problem, Big Daddy doesn’t like him, and he’s almost regarded as an adopted child. So Gooper has to overcome a lot of obstacles to get what he wants.  Ball nicely handles the role and there may be more to add to an already fine performance.

Diane Frank does some good work as Big Mama and there are some wonderful funny moments in her performance. At first glance this Big Mama is thin and unlike the character portrayed in the play.  But Frank manages to pull off the performance in grand style.

Daniel Kaemon, Kent Butler

Kent Butler accomplishes a dramatic turn in Big Daddy in his search for the truth.  He sees a lot of his son in himself, someone who is as honest as he can be.  Still, Big Daddy is looking for the truth.  And it doesn’t matter that his son had a relationship with his best friend, after all, he's had friends similar in nature, those that gave him the plantation.  Still, Big Daddy needs it, the truth, and no one is willing to offer it to him.  Butler is tremendous in the role.  The breakdown is something unexpected but worked in this production, but to what end, I’m not quite sure.

Scott Dewey, with a perpetual smile, does a grand job as Reverend Tooker and who could blame him.  He wants for the church and he is standing like a vulture over a not quite dead carcass, waiting for the inevitable.  And it’s all about his church, needing something, wanting something for the church and what better place to be.  Looking back, his performance was extremely funny!

Sometimes one wonders about the objective of a performer and what a character is doing in the show.  Case in point Bruce Nehlsen as Dr. Baugh.  And looking back, he is the one with the definitive truth that must be shared, must be concise, and point blank in a place where one can be comfortable to receive the information. Trying to give comfort and structure to an end of day scenario in a house reeking of a disorderly formality is a trying job that someone must do and why not him.  

Felicia Taylor E. does a fine job as Sookie but more could be made of her fine southern sensibilities. Still, she has a very nice presence on stage.

Much can be said about the performances of the children in this show.  Mia Banham creates a fine character in Dixie, Jacob Accardo is also very credible as Buster, and Andrew C. Grigorian does some fine work as Sonny. In the south, the children are mostly underfoot while adults want to have more than a polite conversation and in this play the children give it just the right touch, being in the moment, and providing excellent background voices and sounds.

I don’t remember seeing Lily Daugherty perform as Trixie the night I was there, and some of the smaller members of the cast were not present at curtain call.

Steve Shaw plays Tooker as well but did not perform the night I was there.

Harold Clurman talks about a strong through line in his book On Directing and in L. Flint Esquerra’s version the strong theme of “want” justifies the entire look of the show.  From the gossamer charms of Reverend Tooker to the impertinent lawyer son with the will in hand, all of the characters are greedy with want. Esquerra brings out the additional flavors of adultery, the secrets of homosexuality, and the human vanities of not being wanted at the peak of a characters sexual prime. The show needs wind to blow the Spanish moss and more wind during the storm as is typical with  southern storms.

Dialect Coach Glenda Morgan Brown does a fine job with the actors but more could be made of the accents from Mississippi, Nashville, and Memphis, which are all very different in tone and manner.

The Set Design by Chris Winfield is sublime and does not overpower the actors.  In fact the set is an actor’s delight.

Angela M. Eads is responsible for the Costume Design and each character was costumed marvelously and perfectly suited for the time.

J. Kent Inasy, Lighting Design, had a slight problem with the upstage light, specifically behind the bed, where the actors were in partial shadow – a minor glitch that will be fixed by the time you see this.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Ceirra Burton and Pascale Gigon – Assistant Producers
Debi Tinsley – Assistant Director
Steve Shaw – Sound Design
Christian Ackerman – Videographer
Eddie Liu – Fight Choreographer
Nora Feldman – Public Relations
Dough Haverty - Art & Soul Design – Graphic Design
Drina Durazo – Program

Run! Run! Run! And take someone who lusts for you.

Through November 14, 2015

The Lonny Chapman Theatre
10900 Burbank Boulevard
North Hollywood, CA  91601

Reservations:  818-763-5990

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