REVIEW: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Raven Theatre)

 

This cat still purrs

 

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Raven Theatre presents
   
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
   
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by
Michael Menendian
at
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through December 19  |  tickets: $30   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Chicago has always had a love affair with Tennessee Williams. This city is where the playwright first found success in 1944 with A Glass Menagerie. The man went on to win a shelf full of Tonys and Pulitzers, but he always had a captive audience in Chicago. Even almost thirty years after death, each theatre season sees a smattering of Tennessee. What makes this more remarkable is that all his best known plays are set in humid locales far removed from the evils of Lake Michigan winters (Glass may be set in the St. Louis, but that’s basically the Midwest’s Florida!).

Raven CAT vert 1 Set in the steamy Mississippi Delta, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—which earned him his second Pulitzer Prize—covers all the topics that keep Williams relevant. The lengthy play drips in sex, lays bare the dispossession of the nouveau riche in the 20th Century, and cranks out family dysfunction better than a late night talk show. Under the smart directing hand of Michael Menendian, Raven Theatre’s production puts forth a clean production of the canonical text. The superbly talented cast makes the show sing.

An interesting subtlety Menendian caresses out of the script is a change of focus from Maggie (the titular cat) to the touchy relationship between Big Daddy and his alcoholic son, Brick. Sexy, desperate, and, well, catty, it is easy for productions to ride on Maggie’s struggle for survival in a world of plantations and debutants. And the play’s discussion of loveless marriages and repressed homosexuality, refreshingly frank for 1955, often supersede the more classical themes of death and inheritance. Not here. This Cat is not built around Brick’s and Maggie’s wrecked relationship – it’s about Big Daddy’s blind desire to leave his dynasty to the worst candidate for the job, and the resulting consequences.

The show’s paradigm shift is in no way a slight against Liz Fletcher, who portrays Maggie with class and vibrancy. She makes it clear that this cat came from poverty; Fletcher keeps the claws bared. By the final moments, we know she will do anything she has to in order to secure her future. An aloof Jason Huysman brings a healthy dose of humor to his Brick. His main goal is to drink as much as he can until he hears that “click” that will bring peace into his life, and nothing will stop him in his quest (which sounds more depressing than funny, but leads to quite a few laughs). As Brick’s Big Mama, JoAnn Montemurro does great work, keeping the audience tied in to her alternating spats between subservient housewife to head of the family. The breakout performance in the production, though, belongs to Jon Steinhagen as Big Daddy. Steinhagen wraps the character in layers. He’s cranky, lecherous, vicious, yet oddly understanding of Brick’s abnormal (for the time) relationship with his dead friend. In some respects, Steinhagen’s Big Daddy seems more in tune with Brick’s sexuality than Brick.

 

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The cast keeps the pace breezy and slow, which works in their favor. It has the effect of dousing any sexual fire between Maggie and Brick, but perhaps there shouldn’t really be much there, anyway. There are a handful of overcooked moments that could’ve been sheared off; when Brick enters shirtless and Fletcher gives him a long, silent stare is one example. Katherine Chavez’s guitar-heavy scoring is also unnecessary. It creates artificial melodrama. Raven should leave it to the actors to create the mood.

Either way, this is a rock solid production of a classic American play, which may be its biggest fault (and my problem with Raven in general). There are moments where it feels like a museum piece. Unlike David Cromer’s explosive Streetcar Named Desire (our review) last season, this Cat lacks revelation. I’m not asking for crazy concepts or heavy doses of deconstruction, but, existentially, this production needs a shot in the arm.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
    
   

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Design Team

Ray Toler (Set Designer); Andrei Onegin (Technical Director); Kelly Dailey (Scenic Artist); Christine Ferriter (Lighting Designer); Mina Hyun-Ok Hong (Costume Designer); Katherine M. Chavez (Sound Designer) and Mary O’Dowd (Props) and Leif Olsen (Composer). Jen Short serves as stage manager and Justin Castellano serves as Asst. Stage Manager.

Cast

The Pollitt family is portrayed by Liz Fletcher (Maggie) who is a Raven ensemble member of 13 years and recently appeared in The Odd Couple and received Jeff Citations for her work in A Streetcar Named Desire and Golden Boy; Jason Huysman (Brick) who last appeared in Raven’s production of Death of a Salesman and has also worked with Steppenwolf, Trap Door and Greasy Joan; Jon Steinhagen (Big Daddy) who recently appeared in Raven’s productions of The Odd Couple and Hedda Gabler and is a multiple Jeff Award winning actor, writer and musical director; JoAnn Montemurro (Big Momma) who is the Co-Artistic Director of Raven Theatre and was recently seen in Death of a Salesman and Hedda Gabler; Eleanor Katz (Mae) who is making her Raven Theatre debut and has also worked with Babes with Blades; Greg Caldwell (Gooper) who is a Raven ensemble member who recently appeared in The Odd Couple and Death of a Salesman; Mike Boone (Reverend Tooker) whose previous Raven credits include A Clean Well-Lighted Place, The Room, Talk to Me Like the Rain, and You Can’t Take it With You; and Jonathan Nichols (Dr. Baugh) who appeared in Raven’s production of Book of Days and has also worked with Circle Theatre, City Lit, and Eclipse Theatre.

Bios

Tennessee Williams was an award winning playwright, whose accolades include one Tony Award, four New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards and two Pulitzer Prizes. Often using people and situations from his own life as inspiration for his characters and plot lines, Williams tackled many controversial and personal topics including homosexuality, depression and addiction to drugs and alcohol. Known as a master of American drama, Williams’ prolific nature led to the penning of many plays, novels, short stories and a screenplay.

Director Michael Menendian is a founding member and the Producing Artistic Director of Raven Theatre, where he has directed and designed sets for many productions, earning numerous Joseph Jefferson and After Dark awards. He recently received a 2010 Jeff nomination for his direction of Raven’s Death of a Salesman. His other productions include The Odd Couple, Hedda Gabler, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, The Night of the Iguana, The Sea Gull, American Buffalo, Dancing at Lughnasa, Golden Boy, Marvin’s Room, A Streetcar Named Desire, A View from the Bridge, and Glengarry Glen Ross.

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