Working at the Drury Lane, director Marcia Milgrom Dodge treats Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” as if it were a spooky story of scary shadows from the all-American past. Haunting us all.
Big Daddy, Big Mama, Brick and Maggie, the no-neck monsters, all inhabit a crumbling Gothic mansion, covered with mossy kudzu. Kevin Depinet, the gifted set designer, hasn’t so much designed the usual mansion in the Mississippi Delta of 1955 as rendered a nightmarish version of, say, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
As crossed with something from a theme-park fright fest.
And around the periphery of the vista lurk Donica Lynn and Reginald Robinson Jr., playing the two African-American servants in Williams’ original script, sure, but here seeming both to be of the action and observant, musically observant, thereof. They feel like descendants from a successive generation, tourists returned to observe where their grandparents once worked. Here among the racist Southern dinosaurs.
Before I go any further, let me say this is admirably gutsy summer programming at the Drury Lane of Oakbrook Terrace, where the more usual fair-weather fare is farce, murder mystery or “On Golden Pond.” These days, productions of Williams’ work without the usual nonprofit protections from a marketplace privileging mediocrity and mendacity are rare. And there is nothing rote about this take on the story of the panicked marriage of stubborn Brick and sexually fired Maggie, a union so mutually incompatible that the latter is moved to remark, accurately: “Living with someone you love can be lonelier than living entirely alone, if the one you love doesn’t … love you.”
The dot-dot-dot (as they say in “Mamma Mia!”) was Williams’ way of writing about sex. Or the esteem-shattering perils of the lack thereof.
It feels like Dodge (whose previous fine work includes Drury Lane’s “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,”which she also instilled with a potent narrative undercurrent) is linking the homophobia of the era with its racism. Most productions of this play focus on the loveless marriage: If you recall Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman in these roles, you’ll remember that “Cat” can be rendered as a titillating play, the story of a woman in heat, and the problems therein mostly attributable to sexual repression and to the micro issues within a particularly ill-advised union.
But Dodge is exploring the work from a broader canvas; she’s arguing that the same forces of repression that have turned Brick into an alcoholic, a boozer forever craving the “click” of release, have choked American society in multifarious other ways. And the cancer that afflicts Big Daddy feels a lot like an inevitable comeuppance for the privileged.
Not only is that a compelling vista into this play, but Dodge’s conceptual work also doesn’t undermine the play’s sexual charge, and actually only enhances its stakes. The show comes with a fabulous young Maggie in Genevieve Angelson; she’s both of her time and, aptly enough, timeless in her approach to her woman, unloved. There’s a fine freshness to Angelson’s work — freshness often is the first thing to go with this particular role — and the sense that notice is being served on Brick and his ilk, notice that women soon will no longer prostrate themselves for masculine attention, even if, in 1955, Maggie did not yet have the words. It’s a dynamic and counterintuitive performance that, for Williams fans, is well worth some effort to see.
Anthony Bowden, who plays Brick, is a young actor and he doesn’t show us as many colors. His minimalist approach is to essay a Brick who is numb inside, which is a valid choice in most productions, but not so much here, since everything else on the stage, including Matt DeCaro and Cindy Gold as Big D and Big M, comes with such surety of definition and breadth of canvas.
Williams did not conceive Brick as a wall, but as a young gay man fighting against the mortar of his moment, even when his wife was wielding the spatula.
She didn’t own the construction company.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (3 stars)
When: Through Aug. 26
Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Tickets: $43-$58 at 630-530-0111 or www.drurylanetheatre.com