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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 

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CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF

Zebra Crossing Theatre

at Victory Gardens Studio

The odor of mendacity hangs thick in the air. Once more the Pollitts of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof--the epically dysfunctional, magnificently maladjusted family--are scheming and dishing it out in Tennessee Williams's less than mellow drama.

Though it fits any play, "mendacity" is an especially apt term for this 1955 Pulitzer Prize winner. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, with its delicious deceit, may be a perfect embodiment of theater as "the lie that tells the truth." It's Williams's shrewd powers of illusion that make us want so much to see the Pollitts' lies exposed--whatever the characters do to each other is nothing compared to the subterfuge the playwright forces on the audience.

You know the story: a greedy, manipulative Southern Gothic clan gets all the more so when its patriarch, Big Daddy, who's dying of cancer, refuses to draw up a will. Gooper, Big Daddy's hypocritical elder son, is desperate to be able to provide for the five "no-neck monsters" spawned by him and his wife Mae (who now carries a sixth). His rapacious rival is Maggie, the title's predatory "cat" and the childless wife of Brick, Big Daddy's favorite son, a withdrawn, alcoholic ex-football hero whose painfully repressed homosexuality is eating him alive. (Williams doesn't let a single character say the H word. But then even in his letters Williams would self-deprecatingly describe his straight friends as "normal.")

The plot teems with lies to spread and secrets to hide--mainly about Big Daddy's health and Brick's sex life. The darkest secret belongs to Brick, who can barely hide his torment for having triggered the self-destruction of his lover, Skipper. Maggie, a sexual tornado who's the living opposite of the emotionally detached Brick, wants to cure his emotional and sexual paralysis any way she can. (Her character mirrors Maria St. Just, Williams's longtime friend and correspondent, who was never comfortable with his homosexuality.)

Director Marlene Zuccaro, who staged the Illegitimate Players' scathing The Glass Mendacity (a brilliant send-up of Williams's potboiling excesses) clearly savors the nasty humor of the author's throwaway barbs; fortunately, she also treats the characters' ambitions and heartbreaks like a sacred trust and warmly depicts the empty anguish behind the Pollitts' power plays. And though the production's nontraditional casting somewhat confuses Williams's Faulknerian Southern stereotypes, it never entirely undermines them.

Alternately languorous and fiery, the production gets at almost everything Williams wrote. Karen Zissis's billowing curtains and seedy French doors hint at Delta decadence, Jeffrey Childs's lighting spangles the set with a mad rainbow of schizoid effects, and the sound design by Zuccaro and Anna Jordan pulses with sexy saxophone solos.

The six-person ensemble gets across both the desperation of trapped souls and Williams's compassion for life's losers right from the start. Adrianne Cury's flamboyantly sultry tigress Maggie is a sad anomaly, an earth mother who can't give birth, a woman who can't show her love for Brick in the only way she knows. (It's clear that whatever fortune Maggie gets from providing an heir is nothing to the security she'll get if she can make Brick forget Skipper.) It's easy to convey Maggie's sexual machinations, but Cury drives home the hunger in her that's as strong as the sex.

John Carter Brown plays rich variations on Brick's bitterness. At first he seems to squeeze it out narrowly, through brooding eyebrows and flashing eyes, but in Brick's confrontation with his pile-driving father Brown churns out desperations so real they hurt to watch. Even the fact that as much as Brown's Brick boozes he can't get drunk perfectly reinforces the man's untouchable alienation. Cury's erotic glow and Brown's surly rage set each other off magnificently.

The supporting roles are trimmed to hold the production to a little more than two hours, but the tragicomedy comes through nonetheless. Vulgar in his self-made swaggering, pathetic in his erroneous hope for a new lease on life, Don Blair's Big Daddy knows how to get small. Paulette McDaniels's Big Mama, a woman hard put to keep her brood from each other's throats and to fend off her own fears, lurches from dithering ineffectuality to hard-core despair without missing any emotional middle ground. Brittle Mae, as played by Eva D., can turn harpy in an instant when she smells an inheritance. W. Earl Brown's Gooper captures both the edgy insecurity of a neglected elder son and the bullying bluster of a prosecuting attorney.

In the end you see six Southerners clinging desperately to too damn little; nothing could make them more miserable than to get their way. Zebra Crossing's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof makes you feel and fear--and that's just the order Williams intended.

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