Living a lie never looked so good as it does in director Lisa Peterson’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, currently playing at the Guthrie Theater. In Tennessee Williams’s most famous (and self-proclaimed favorite) play, the lines between truth and fabrication, reality and fantasy are loosely drawn and open to interpretation. The scent of frustration and suppression surrounds every character, each hiding from each other and themselves.
It’s this premise of denial and desperation that fuels the play. And when a production of Cat is done well—when the poetic monologues and intense dialogues are properly executed; when the set and staging are given as much thought as the accents and timing; when the audience sits in suspenseful attention, willfully clinging to every last word and expression—it’s clear to see why it continues to dazzle audiences 57 years after its premiere and Pulitzer Prize win. This is one such production.
Carrying the first act is Emily Swallow as Maggie. With pouty lips and expressive eyes (not to mention killer curves and seductive body language), Swallow owns her role as Brick’s sexually frustrated and powerfully manipulative wife. Brick, played by a devilish Peter Christian Hansen, is an ex-football star and a big-time alcoholic. The chemistry between Swallow and Hansen is palpable, especially as conversation slides from Maggie’s one-sided blabbering, to their past love life, to the root of Brick’s drinking: the death of his friend, Skipper.
The entire play takes place in the couple’s bedroom at Brick’s parents’ mansion. It’s Big Daddy’s 65th birthday, and everyone but he and Big Mama know it is also his last. That’s the overarching lie in Cat. But it’s all the small lies that make this play great: Maggie lying to herself that Brick will ever love her again; Big Mama (played by a boisterous and dynamic Melissa Hart) lying to herself that she’s an equal in her marriage; Brick lying to himself that his love for Skipper, and Skipper’s love for him, was indeed as pure and true as he passionately defends it to be. One by one, line by line, each lie is exposed for all to see until finally everyone must decide for themselves which lies have become something more; have crossed the line into truth.
Set designer Rachel Hauck skillfully crafted her one-scene stage into a character of its own. A door and three shutters outline the room, and the lack of walls allows for visibility and a sense of vulnerability. The open layout makes it so that eavesdropping done by snoopy daughter-in-law Mae (Michelle O’Neill) and her husband, Brick’s brother, Gooper (Chris Carlson), is never as sneaky as they think it is; Big Mama finds a way to butt into every conversation; and when Big Daddy (powerfully played as the most profane, cynical, and materialistic man as Williams could ever have imagined by David Anthony Brinkley) tries to have a heart-to-heart with Brick, the conversation is constantly interrupted.
By the time the play climaxes, every emotion has been felt, every character broken, every lie weighed. And as each of these things settles into the others, it becomes clear why Williams bravely claimed Cat as his favorite child: this is a play so full of truth that anyone who says he or she cannot relate to it is lying. And from that irony stems the beauty of this play—which Peterson and crew beautifully stage at the Guthrie.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Through February 26
Guthrie Theater, 818 Second St. S., Mpls., 612-377-2224