Heather Benton, left, and Rick Prigge star in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Few characters chew up a scene like Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’ classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Stuck in a house full of histrionics, the ultimate patriarch maintains order with a series of pugnacious declarations, colloquial putdowns and timely expletives. He’s off-color and loud, mulish and dictatorial. He despises those who are “all hawk and no spit,” openly dreams of ditching his “fat” wife for a plum hussy so he can “smother her in minks” and then unceremoniously “hump” the living daylights out of her, and he relishes the absence of his favorite word—crap. Big Daddy is such a dominating character he even dictates the action when he’s not on stage. So intimidated are his family, doctor and preacher that just the mere mention of his name can give any one of them pause.
But there are two things that make Big Daddy weaker than a virgin mint julep: death and failure. Watching the Montana Repertory Theatre’s new staging of Williams’ timeless play, it’s these rare moments of Big Daddy’s weakness that sting like paper cuts on tough, weathered skin. Big Daddy proves to be as scared as he is scary. And his vulnerability stands in stark contrast to the steely resolve of the play’s more subtly cunning presence, a woman whose early hysterics give way to patient plotting. That this powerful contrast emerges unobstructed in the Rep’s imminently polished, commanding version of the play is the production’s greatest achievement.
For those unfamiliar, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof marinates in the dysfunctional family dynamics that plague Big Daddy’s clan. The old man is unknowingly dying of cancer, and on his 65th birthday everyone’s gathered, in various forms of sincerity, to celebrate, then break the harsh news of his illness to Big Mama (Jayne Muirhead), and, finally, get down to brass tacks—fighting over who inherits the family’s 28,000-acre Mississippi Delta plantation.
The battle over the estate exposes the worst of this quintessentially closeted Southern household. In one corner stands Gooper (Chris Torma), the oldest son, an uptight boob who happened to marry a woman with an uncanny ability to procreate. Despite the fact they appear to be the most responsible heirs, Big Daddy finds little love for the uninspiring lawyer and his niggling wife, Mae (Michelle Edwards). In the other corner slumps Brick (Rick Prigge), the former gridiron celebrity addled by booze and the recent suicide of his closest friend. Big Daddy has always favored Brick, a deteriorating playboy who shares his father’s aversion to bull, and taken a keen eye to his attractive wife, Maggie (Heather Benton). But Brick’s severe drinking and marital problems—he and Maggie no longer sleep together—raise serious concerns, leaving the plantation’s future in question.
Maggie, for one, wants none of that uncertainty. The entire first act finds her in an extended rant aimed at her hopeless husband. Known as “Maggie The Cat” from her days cheering Brick from the sidelines, she’s pulled herself up from poverty into this flawed but favored family, feeling, as the title puts it, “like a cat on a hot tin roof.” Maggie’s determined to stay on it as long as she can, in part to seize Big Daddy’s $10 million fortune, because there’s no way she’ll ever regress to her less fortunate roots. You get the sense she’ll do anything to have her way.
With such a rich setup, Benton soars as Maggie. The veteran Rep actor—most recently appearing in 2005’s The Trip to Bountiful—carries off Maggie’s seductive, slinky nature with an alluring purr. There are hints of craziness in her early pleas and bargaining with Brick, but Benton deftly shifts back to control, decorum and an unflinching focus on success. It’s hard to make Maggie sympathetic, but Benton’s gorgeous desperation makes it so.
Eddie Levi Lee’s Big Daddy, meanwhile, is equally powerful playing an entirely different animal. Whereas Benton’s Maggie stalks on the outskirts for much of the second and third acts, Lee’s Big Daddy is exactly the larger-than-life persona the play requires. As he bellows some of the play’s most famous lines—“There ain’t nothin’ more powerful than the smell of mendacity!”—the words seem to reverberate off the theater’s walls. Physically, he’s perfectly imposing, right down to the expansive belly and General Lee-like white beard. So when the baddest man on stage puts his heart on his sleeve, when Big Daddy wails after learning his fate or loudly exhales before one last attempt to connect with Brick, even then it’s carried out like a flailing heavyweight.
Pulling the strings on these performances is Greg Johnson, the 18-year leader of the Rep. In almost all of the plays Johnson directs, whether it be with the equity talent employed by the Rep or with students in a University of Montana production, he has a deft ability to sit back and let actors become characters, minimizing any extraneous distractions. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof displays that steady hand more than ever. The supporting actors have their moments—UM alum Prigge is especially strong as Brick—and there are elements of grandeur in Alessia Carpoca’s set design, but mostly Johnson clears the stage for his leads. And with such a clear, confident vision from the director, it’s amazing how much more one can glean from watching Williams’ play once more.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues in UM’s Montana Theatre Thursday, Jan. 31, and Saturday, Feb. 2, and again Feb. 5–9, at 7:30 PM. $15/$12 students and seniors.