The thing about Tennessee Williams plays is that he provides so much opportunity to over-do it, to take things to such a heightened emotional place that one runs the risk of parodying the style. Fortunately, most of Cincinnati Shakespeare’s production of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (directed by veteran local favorite Michael Evan Haney) remains subtle enough to be realistic while maintaining the integrity of the dialogue and the signature style of the playwright.
In Act One (the weakest of the three), we meet “Maggie” (the beautiful Maggie Lou Rader) and her husband, “Brick” (an understated Grant Niezgodski) who have not been intimate in sometime. His parents, “Big Mama” (Amy Warner) and “Big Daddy” (the mesmerizing Jim Hopkins) would love grandchildren from Brick . . . even though they have five and one on the way from Brick’s older brother “Gooper” (Justin McCombs) and his wife “Mae” (a delightful Kelly Mengelkoch.)
Throughout the brisk three acts (run time just under three hours, with two brief intermissions) the play touches on sexuality, aging and health issues, family squabbles, and the complicated nature of love. It’s a brilliantly written piece of theatre and this production finds its groove in Act Two. From the moment Big Daddy steps onto the stage, the tone changes. Hopkins has such presence, such confidence on stage, that you can’t help but feel better knowing he’s there. Even when he’s belligerent, angry, and bullying all those in his home, there’s a warmth and charisma to Big Daddy that is unquestionable.
Also excellent is the slow-burn drunkenness of Niezgodski’s “Brick.” As I said before, Williams gives much opportunity to overdo it. Niezgodski resists and instead draws the audience into his performance, helping us understand why he’s the favorite, why Maggie is so desperate to hold on to him, and why his late friend “Skipper” would have also been so enamored with him. One wonders what he was like before he started drinking – it’s a genuine desire to know the man before he was broken. It’s a breakout performance.
The lights are simple but effective. The rich sound design adds texture to the production. Costumes are period appropriate though I don’t think Calvin Klein boxer-briefs were invented at the time this play is set . . . details, details. The set design is functional and appropriate given this rich, old Southern family’s wealth and status. CSC continues to up their game in their new space.
All of the marketing for this show features Rader, seductive and alluring. And Tennessee Williams is famous for his strong female characters. I think audiences will be surprised to discover the wonderful male performances (including McCombs – who’s incredulous reaction to one line really got me – and Nicholas Rose’s anxious doctor) are the real stars of this show.
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF runs through April 28th at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company in Over-the-Rhine. Click here for more information.