It really wasn’t fair, walking into the Duluth Playhouse’s opening night production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with visions of sultry Elizabeth Taylor and a smoldering Paul Newman in their prime.
But there it was, like an elephant in the room.
Their iconic portrayals played in my head, though I hadn’t seen the celebrated 1958 movie in years — Taylor’s frustrated Maggie the Cat and Newman’s brooding Brick, the ex-athlete, drinking himself to numbness.
Could the Playhouse eclipse those images, at least for a couple of hours?
It did. Sort of.
With her Southern drawl and stealth-like movements, Carolyn LePine as Maggie was an able combination of strength, determination and longing. Zachary Stofer as Brick played the indifferent, aloof Brick, to such an extent that he seemed to be just a piece of the furniture much of the time. He usually faced away from the audience. But when he did sit facing the audience and traces of emotion were revealed, one longed for more.
But a funny thing happened.
After the tedious first scene between Maggie and Brick (it was written that way), when other actors entered the stage, the pace picks up and other cast members emerge as standouts.
As written by Tennessee Williams, the 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning play is an unsettling look at the lies, secrets and social mores of a Southern family headed by the tyrannical Big Daddy, the owner of a large Mississippi plantation. As the family gathers at his estate for his 65th birthday, he is unaware he is dying of cancer. But his older son does know and maneuvers to gain control of the family fortune.
But at the heart of this play about a family in crisis is younger son Brick. Why did he withdraw from life and his wife, Maggie? Is he gay? Was his best buddy who died more than a friend? Maggie’s unsuccessful efforts to seduce the uninterested Brick leave her like a “cat on a hot tin roof.”
Directed by Julie Ahasay, the pace picks up as the play progresses. But the play itself is so grueling that it’s not for those looking for an entertaining evening at the theater.
Despite her petite stature, Elle Martin as Big Mama, Brick’s mother, brought welcome energy to the proceedings.
She made the most of her lines and actions that had humorous potential, including when she called the preacher attending the party over to her, only to force him onto her lap with a laugh, saying, “Did you ever see a preacher in an old lady’s lap?”
Later, her despair at learning the truth about her husband’s condition is palpable, believable.
But the biggest surprise came with Jack Starr’s portrayal of Big Daddy. On paper, he is a booming, vulgar tyrant.
But Starr, dressed in a crisp, white double-breasted suit and sporting a grayish beard, looked like a genteel Colonel Sanders. He was more likeable than repulsive, even as he told crude jokes or railed at others. And during his scenes, he commanded the stage.
If you go
What: Duluth Playhouse’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 22
Where: The Depot, 506 W. Michigan St.
Tickets: $27 adults; available at duluthplayhouse.org or call (218) 733-7555
This review originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on February 13, 2015 and was written by Candace Renalls.