This isn’t the screenplay. Elizabeth Taylor isn’t here, and Paul Newman isn’t involved. Tennessee Williams’ play is represented here as he wrote it—and not as Hollywood portrayed it. The Albuquerque Little Theatre wants you to know that the stage version is the best version and from my vantage point, their boast is dignified and true.
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is a masterpiece of theater. It represents real human drama as good theater should. Greed, regret, mendacity: these are the psychological players that show through the actors and actresses. These are immortal characters in their own way because they’re not striving for perfection—far from it, in fact. As Maggie the Cat argues, “I don’t know why people pretend to be good, there are no good people.” Argue that however you will, but these characters are surely not good people. They are, at best, only bad. ... or worse.
For those unfamiliar with this iconic work of 20th century theater, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is the story of a family facing the death of the family patriarch, a wealthy southern plantation owner named Big Daddy (a role well-played by the commanding talent Tom Pentecost). Whether he knows it or not, Big Daddy is on his last legs, and he is facing the decision of which of his sons will inherit his vast estate. Will he choose Brick (played by Peter Diseth), the former football player and sports announcer who is a drunk but also an honest man? Or will he choose Gooper (played by Matt Heath), the Memphis lawyer and professional businessman who despite his success is a dishonest and greedy liar?
The dynamics in the play are offset by one of the most memorable characters of 20th century theater, Margaret, otherwise known as “Maggie the Cat” (played by the striking and talented Kate Costello). Maggie is deeply in love with her husband Brick. Her affection and desire for him, though often frustrated, are central themes of the play. She struggles to bring her man back from the destructive drinking that has gripped his life following a career-ending football injury and the death of his best friend Skipper, a character who dominates the lives and motivations of Maggie and Brick even in death.
Williams boldly played this work close to the vest. As an open homosexual in a time that was non-conducive to homosexuality, Williams valiantly brought this theme front and center in “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.” The relationship between Brick and Skipper is repeatedly called into question. While Gooper and his wife and even Maggie herself fixate on the “questionable” friendship between the men, Big Daddy says, “If I’ve learned anything in these 65 years, it is tolerance.” This is incredibly endearing considering the time from whence the work emerged. The fact that Big Daddy so dearly considers Brick a good son without judgment, without a care for traditional mores was a heroic act at the time of play’s first staging, and it remains so in our own time.
While the plot and structure are familiar to any student of modern American theater, Albuquerque Little Theatre’s production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is its own demon—a wicked one gilded in gold. The actors and actresses and even the set design—created under the auspices of director Denise Schulz—have their own qualities worthy of consideration.
The set is gorgeous and without walls, just as the characters of the play are people without boundaries; this metaphoric rising to the occasion enhances the production to no end. Privacy is nonexistent on Big Daddy’s plantation. As the important monologues ensue, the audience is always aware that the words exchanged are seeping through the house’s cracks and into the eager ears of everyone there. Gooper and his wife Mae (played by Jennifer Benoit) are always eavesdropping on words exchanged by Brick and Maggie or Brick and Big Daddy. They’re forever intent on finding a crack in Brick’s character through which they can further impugn his character.
Bringing these characters to life has been no easy task for the cast. Kate Costello shed some light on the issue of playing Maggie. “I’m trying to find the truth in this character and to communicate that to the audience—there is no protagonist and no antagonist in this play,” says Castello. “Everyone is dark and cruel and kind. I’m not a cat myself, by which I mean catty. I’m not mean, but that has to come out in me when I play Maggie.”
In the role of Brick, Peter Diseth faces a different problem. His character is center stage for 90 percent of the performance, which is an exhausting task for any actor. This is a play with a two-hour run time that represents a real-time snapshot of two hours in several lives. Brick faces a crossroads in his life and, by play’s end, must arrive at a reckoning. Diseth’s role is clearly the most intense and difficult in the play.
For those interested in well-crafted dialogue and abundant humor and grief, this is a performance to catch. For fans of Tennessee Williams, this is the play of plays, and Albuquerque Little Theatre presents it for New Mexicans in a version equal of any production before it. Be warned: This play is not for the kiddies despite the five children (Gooper and Mae’s) among the cast. This work represents life in its purest form: emotionally raw, shrewd and as hard as a stone. It’s about people trying to make out one another’s visages through darkly tinted glass.