ROSWELL, Ga. — Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s choice to open its 2019-20 season with the sultry Tennessee Williams’ classic “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” shows it still remains true to its tenet of bringing quality theater to the exurbs. And it succeeds.
Williams’ play of Southern gothic family dysfunction sips at family politics, sexual politics, greed and “mendacity” like a tall cool mint julep out on the veranda. A warm evening breeze passes through the red oak trees draped in Spanish moss as it tries to cool family passions coming to a boil at Big Daddy’s 65th birthday party.
Big Daddy thinks he has returned with the news that he doesn’t have cancer just a “spastic colon” and has many more years to preside over his near feudal estate of $10 million and “20,000 acres of the richest land this side of the Valley Nile.”
But the family has lied to him and now are preparing to break the news that he is dying. But who will have control of this vast empire? Older brother, the dutiful Gooper (Topher Payne) and his dutiful wife May, affectionately known as Sister Woman (Kelly Criss), hope that the five “no-necked” offspring they have produced will cement Gooper’s place as heir to the empire.
Big Mama (Karen Howell) has her own ideas on that score. Favorite younger son Brick (Joe Sykes) is indifferent to it all, finding all his solace in a whiskey bottle.
But then there is Brick’s wife, Maggie, Maggie the Cat, (Kate Donadio MacQueen) who has the biggest stake of all. She has the biggest fight of all, reclaiming the love of her husband and ensuring his share in the estate.
The Beverly Hillbillies they ain’t.
GET Associate Artistic Director James Donadio said he was delighted to have “Cat” open GET’s 2019-20 season because not only is it Williams at his best, it was a chance to dig deeper into the original play – or plays.
Written and set in the 1950s, Donadio said there were no less than five iterations of the drama, not to mention Hollywood’s somewhat timid and “uplifting” ending. How could Paul Newman not make up with his unfaithful wife if she is Liz Taylor?
“And of course Hollywood at the time censored most of the references to homosexuality alluded to in the play,” Donadio said. “This play is an amalgamation of the texts from those five plays, plus the screenplay.”
This play is ambivalent concerning whether Brick reciprocated in kind to his best friend’s feelings. It is left deliberately ambiguous. What is not ambiguous is how “Maggie the Cat” will fight for her husband, her marriage and her place in this family.
Indeed, it is Maggie’s play. According to the notes, the first 29 pages are almost all Maggie’s lines. So it is well that Kate McQueen returns to the GET stage to possess it so completely. She stalks, she flashes her claws and she purrs with a defiance and sense of purpose of a born survivor.
For Maggie is a survivor, and MacQueen gives her the spark that illuminates all that comes after.
Sykes as Brick does a superior job of making the hopelessly alcoholic Brick a sympathetic character, one who is tortured by the betrayal of both his best friend (for dying – one may presume suicide) and his wife for sleeping with him (if only once).
Maxwell as Big Daddy brings a force and a presence on which much depends. For much of the play, his is a role of force and vigor but only alluded to offstage. Once he arrives, he possesses that stage.
In all, it is Tennessee Williams at his best. And while in today’s times not quite so shocking as in the ‘50s in which he wrote it, the play is still arresting.
It is a mature choice for what has become OTP Atlanta’s most exciting and theatrical theater. And it is a delicious Southern apple which beckons those who would like a bite of something different.