On a hot, humid summer evening, somewhere deep in the steamy Mississippi Delta, a festive, 65th birthday celebration is taking shape. Fireworks light up the sky over the family estate, a massive cotton plantation that occupies “28,000 acres of most fertile land this side of the Nile,” as Big Daddy enjoys boasting. He’s surrounded by his wife, Big Mama, his two sons, Brick and Gooper, and their wives, Maggie and Mae. Also gathered for the festivities are Mae and Gooper’s five raucous “no-neck monster” children, the local minister and the family physician. However, despite what should promise to be a jubilant event, Death’s gloomy shadow hovers over any merriment.
Tennessee Williams’ powerful drama about lies, deception, greed, sexual repression and death among one powerful Southern family ranks among his three most famous, most often-produced plays, which also include “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” This shattering drama, rumored to be the author’s favorite of his many plays, won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Produced that same year on Broadway, the play has since been revived at least four times in New York; it’s also been staged in London’s West End, along with every major city around the world. It’s a popular offering among countless educational, community and regional theatres, as well. The play was also adapted twice for television and became a hit 1958 film, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman.
Highly respected guest Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge makes a welcome return to Drury Lane Theatre, having already earned a Jeff Award for her recent, exhilarating production of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” Here she commandeers a glorious production of Tennessee Williams’ scintillating classic. Ms. Dodge stages the play with verve and a driving vitality seldom seen in this play. She also wisely accentuates the dark comic moments, with which the playwright seasoned his drama, keeping it from becoming an entire emotional bloodbath. The care this Director has taken in guiding her cast toward fleshing out their roles is breathtaking. These characters vigorously leap from Williams’ text, alive, fully formed and breathing fire. It’s hard to imagine a better production of this play.
One of the stars of this magnificent production is Kevin Depinet’s stunning scenic design. This theatre artist has created some truly breathtaking stage sets over the years, but he has truly outdone himself with this dark, decaying plantation stage set. Indeed, the haunted-looking plantation almost becomes another character in this production, dominated by its colossal chandelier, a half-dozen deteriorating Doric columns and a massive circular staircase that spirals its way up from the stage floor and out of sight. An imposing picture window upstage opens out onto two levels of the plantation’s gallery, allowing the audience to observe Big Daddy’s birthday party on the veranda.
Driscoll Otto’s impressionistic lighting and projections add yet another element of magic to this production, not only languishing in the shadows he creates, but illuminating and accentuating each scene, making one character’s physical pain perceptible and another’s emotional dependency on drink even more visible. Slamming doors, a ringing telephone, exploding fireworks and the screams of obnoxious children are just a few of the sounds that come courtesy of Ray Nardelli’s particularly precise auditory design. He’s also responsible for setting the play’s mood with his bluesy pre-show score. And Sully Ratke and Claire Moores’ period-perfect costumes and wig and hair designs complete the 1950’s look.
The characters of Williams’ drama are iconic; anyone who knows theatre is as familiar with Brick, Maggie the Cat and Big Daddy as they are with their own family members. But in Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s remarkable production, and in the hands of the ten gifted actors who portray them, they transcend the confines of the Drury Lane stage and invade our souls. Known to many audience members for her film and television work, beautiful Genevieve Angelson, who created the role of Nina on Broadway in Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” is positively riveting as Maggie the Cat. Sexy, seductive, lithe and crafty, Ms. Angelson dominates every scene as she wheedles, seduces, badgers and barters with Brick, her hunky, alcoholic husband, urging him to give up the bottle and give over to her wiles. As determined as she is desirable, Maggie has escaped poverty by charming and marrying Brick, a wealthy, good-old-boy athlete-turned-sportscaster. He’s played here with juvenile charisma and a certain carelessness by the boyishly handsome Anthony Bowden. Together these two actors ignite a sizzling chemistry that makes the humid, summer night feel even hotter.
These two are matched by another pair of magnificent actors in two stellar performances. One of Chicago’s favorite actresses, Cindy Gold returns to the Drury Lane stage as Big Mama. This incredibly talented and versatile Thespian dominates as the matriarch of the Pollitt family. She’s definitely royalty, the queen of the Mississippi Delta plantation, and she wears her crown with pride. Big Mama obsessively adores her family, especially her youngest son, Brick, and, despite the way he treats his wife, her brutish husband, Big Daddy. This larger-than-life patriarch is portrayed with unbridled energy by Chicagoan Matt DeCaro, who surprisingly is making his first appearance at Drury Lane. DeCaro has been seen all over the country at some of the nation’s finest theatres, and he played Winston Churchill in TimeLine Theatre’s recent production of “The Audience.” Together these two theatrical titans roar and rip up the stage, both in tandem and individually. When Ms. Gold and Mr. DeCaro take to the stage, theatergoers know they’re in for another attack and that these characters will take no prisoners in their domination. It should be noted that Ms. Gold plays Big Mama only through August 12, when the role will be assumed by another local powerhouse actor, Janet Ulrich Brooks.
Two more gifted Chicago actors bring their individual, inimitable style and talents to the roles of Gooper and Mae, the older Pollitt son and his haughty, outspoken wife. It’s clear that both Michael Milligan and Gail Rastorfer thoroughly comprehend the antagonism within these supporting roles. They play this pair of mercenary, jealous money-hungry heirs to Big Daddy’s wealth, without any qualms about staking their claim, even while Big Daddy’s dying before their eyes. Jeff Award-winner Donica Lynn lends her gorgeous voice, quiet strength and regal dignity to Sookey, the Pollitt’s African American maid, while Reginald Robinson, Jr. is stalwart as Lacey, the butler of the estate. Joe Bianco is appropriately conciliatory as Reverend Tooker, hoping to extract some of Big Daddy’s fortune to fund his church windows; and Craig Spidle’s gruff Dr. Baugh is clearly uncomfortable at having to be the bearer of bad news to Big Mama about her husband’s dire prognosis.
A metaphor for the rot and disintegration within the Pollitt family, the decaying ruins of their formerly palatial plantation home becomes the backdrop for Tennessee Williams’ dramatic tale of greed, denial and shame. Reeking with mendacity and deception, and lurking in the shadow of Death’s doorway, Big Daddy’s birthday celebration ignites far more fireworks than those seen in the skies above. Uncontrolled avarice and overpowering jealousies rear their ugly heads as this magnificent production, a textbook example of class acting, in which an already dysfunctional family turns into cats on a hot tin roof.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas