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REVIEW: Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy: Down in the Delta, Tennessee Williams’ Women Are as Nervous as a Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

by Robert W. McDowell

Down in the Delta, Mississippi-born playwright Tennessee Williams tells us, many of the womenfolk are as nervous as a “cat on a hot tin roof.” That is certainly true in the current explosive R-rated production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, now playing as part of the critically acclaimed Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy series. Indeed, the series may have hit its high point to date with this electrifying production of Williams’ provocative drama that washes all the dirty linen of the fictional Pollitt family in a very public way.

Cat is set on a sweltering summer night in 1955. The occasion is the 65th birthday party of Harvey “Big Daddy” Pollitt (Lamont Wade), a wealthy planter worth $10 million in cash, not counting the 28,000 acres of prime agricultural land that he owns. Big Daddy is also celebrating the good news just received from the Oxner Clinic delivered second hand that his chronic health problems are the result of a spastic colon, not colon cancer as he had feared.

Big Daddy’s formidable wife, Ida “Big Mama” Pollitt (Pauline Cobrda), is positively giddy with relief and talking nonstop as she nervously circulates from room to room. Meanwhile, Big Daddy’s favorite son Brick (Michael Hunsaker), a ne’er-do-well former football player-turned-TV sports announcer, is upstairs in his bed and sitting room nursing a broken leg, drinking himself into an alcoholic stupor, and roughly fending off the amorous advances of his increasingly frustrated wife, Margaret “Maggie the Cat” Pollitt (Melissa Kite).

Downstairs, upstairs, and all around the house, Brick’s conniving mercenary older brother Gooper Pollitt (Chris Chappell), a Memphis corporation lawyer scheming to expand his share of the inheritance when Big Daddy dies; Gooper’s pushy and very, very pregnant wife, Mae (Hope Hynes); and their five nearly out-of-control “no-neck” children (Emily Emerson, Bailey Griffin, Sarah Griffin, Tyler Mann, and Kelsey Walston) are making merry with a select group of Pollitt family friends, including the unctuous Rev. Tooker (Todd Igoe) and crusty, plain-spoken Doc Baugh (Bob Barr), and devoted family retainers Lacey (Thaddeus Edwards) and Sookey (Tiffany Ivy). They are all celebrating not only Big Daddy’s birthday but also his escape from the Grim Reaper.

But all is not well in the Pollitt household. The “mendacity” (i.e., lies) that Big Daddy so fervently and publicly despises is at work everywhere. So are envy and greed and the escalating sexual tension between Brick and Maggie.

All too aware that Big Daddy is about to get his bubble burst, when the results of his biopsy become know, Gooper and Mae frantically maneuver to improve their position in the Pollitt family pecking order. They have some juicy “dirt” on Brick and Maggie that they are all-too-willing to spread.

Upstairs in the boudoir battlefield that he shares with Maggie, the reclusive Brick just cannot get over the death of his best friend Skipper, or that fact that Maggie has confessed that she had a brief fling with the handsome boy for whom Brick’s affection seems unnaturally intense, fueling rumors that Brick and Skipper were lovers. Now, Brick mulishly refuses to sleep with Maggie, ignoring his conjugal duties, encouraging Maggie to take another lover, and denying her the opportunity to conceive a child to compete with the five grandchildren already produced by Gooper and Mae and the sixth child on the way.

By the end of this Walpurgisnacht in the Mississippi Delta, skeletons aplenty will tumble out of the Pollitt family closet, tables will be turned, and the rough outlines of life without Big Daddy will begin to take shape. This Cat has its claws; and the passionate Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presentation of this masterpiece of Modern Drama quickly captivated the opening-night audience July 20th. Indeed, it received an exuberant and well-deserved standing ovation after the final curtain.

Los Angeles actress Melissa Kite and New York actor Michael Hunsaker earned their bows with charismatic characterizations of Maggie and Brick. But it was local favorites Pauline Cobrda and especially Lamont Wade who received the lion’s share of applause for their provocative portraits of Big Mama and Big Daddy.

Melissa Kite’s Maggie is an irresistible force, a supremely sensual woman employing all of her womanly wiles in a desperate attempt to rekindle Brick’s affection for her. Michael Hunsaker’s Brick is an immovable object, drunk, disgusted, and self-destructive to a fault. Without some additional leverage, Maggie will never bring him to his senses, because he is now married to the bottle and has no intention of swapping his liquid love for a wife whom he brutally rejects and publicly embarrasses at every opportunity.

Pauline Cobrda plays Big Mama as an inveterate chatterbox, stout and shrill. Big Mama never knows when to shut up.

Lamont Wade plays Big Daddy as a genial curmudgeon. The Pollitt patriarch invariably speaks his mind, no matter whose feelings he hurts.

Chris Chappell and Hope Hynes provide strong support as Gooper and Mae. Gooper is mortally tired of Big Daddy’s favoritism toward his feckless younger brother; and Mae is a sneak and inveterate eavesdropper, always accumulating dirt for later use against Brick and Maggie.

The rest of the cast strive mightily to make minor characters fully three-dimensional, but it is the luminous performances by the Michael Hunsaker and Melissa Kite, Lamont Wade and Pauline Cobrda, and Chris Chappell and Hope Hynes that give Hot Summer Nights patrons more than their money’s-worth in this stellar production, sensitively staged by Dr. Kenny C. Gannon of Peace College on a splendid soaring set designed by Sonya Drum and intimately lit by lighting designer Curtis Jones. The praiseworthy contributions of costume designer Carson Mather and sound designer Richard Coley also help make this production the cat’s meow.

Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presents Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Thursday-Saturday, July 21-23, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, July 24, at 2 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, July 27-30, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, July 31, at 2 p.m. in The Kennedy Theater in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $35 per ticket or $50 for two tickets. Note: Special student and group rates are available, and anyone who brings a picture of their “cat on a roof” to the BTI Box Office may buy a third and fourth ticket for only $20 each. BTI Box Office: 919/831-6060. Group Rates: 919/828-3726. Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy: http://www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org/ [inactive 1/06]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=2442. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0051459/. Tennessee Williams (Mississippi Writers Page, compiled by University of Mississippi): http://www.olemiss.edu/depts/english/ms-writers/dir/williams_tennessee/ [inactive 8/05] and (Perspectives in American Literature: A Research and Reference Guide): http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap8/williams.html [inactive 12/06].


PREVIEW: Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy: Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Is a 1955 Masterpiece of Modern Drama

by Robert W. McDowell

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece of Modern Drama by Mississippi playwright Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams (1911-83), is next up for Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy. This explosive R-rated domestic drama, directed by Dr. Kenny C. Gannon of Peace College in Raleigh, NC, will star New York actor Michael Hunsaker and Los Angeles actress Melissa Kite as Brick and Margaret “Maggie” Pollitt. (Kite and Hunsaker will replace Broadway veterans Jessica Boevers and Matt Bogart as Maggie and Brick.) Local favorites Lamont Wade and Pauline Cobrda will play Brick’s parents Harvey “Big Daddy” Pollitt and Ida “Big Mama” Pollitt.

“What makes a play a masterpiece is its durability and timelessness,” claims Kenny Gannon, who has directed all three Hot Summer Nights productions to date. “Despite the fact that Cat might seem like something of a period piece representing the mythical Southern plantation of the 1950s,” Gannon adds, “Tennessee Williams’ play on the subject of mendacity could not be more timely and durable. It is a masterpiece.”

Michael Hunsaker has played major roles in three productions for the North Carolina Theatre, which stages full-scale productions of Broadway musicals in the 2,277-seat Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts. (Hot Summer Nights stages its shows in the 100-seat Kennedy Theater, downstairs at the rear of the BTI Center). For NCT, Hunsaker played Perchik in Fiddler on the Roof (2005), starring Paul Sorvino; Younger Brother in Ragtime (2004); and Tony in West Side Story (2003).

Melissa Kite, who is making her North Carolina theatrical debut, recently performed in The Actor’s Studio’s production of Sex, Sex, Sex, Sex, Sex, Sex, & Sex by George Furth, who won the 1971 Tony Award® for Best Book for Stephen Sondheim’s Company.

Lamont Wade is a regular at NCT. Most recently, he played several roles in The King and I (2004), starring Lou Diamond Phillips, and J.P. Morgan in Ragtime (also 2004). Pauline Cobrda also performed in NCT’s gala presentations of Fiddler and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (2005).

Other Cat cast members include Bob Barr (Doc Baugh); Chris Chappell (Gooper Pollitt); Thaddeus Edwards (Lacey); Hope Hynes (Mae Pollitt); Todd Igoe (Rev. Tooker); Tiffany Ivy (Sookey); and Emily Emerson, Bailey Griffin, Sarah Griffin, Tyler Mann, and Kelsey Walston as the infamous No-Neck Monsters whose bestial behavior at Big Daddy’s 65th birthday party sets Maggie’s teeth on edge.

In addition to director Kenny Gannon, the Hot Summer Nights creative team for Cat includes technical director and lighting designer Curtis Jones, set designer Sonya Drum, costume designer Carson Mather, and sound designer Richard Coley.

Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof made its Broadway debut on March 24, 1955 at the Morosco Theatre. Directed by Elia Kazan, the play starred Barbara Bel Geddes as Maggie, Ben Gazzara as her husband Brick, Burl Ives as Big Daddy, Mildred Dunnock as Big Mama, Pat Hingle as Brick’s brother Gooper, and Madeleine Sherwood as Gooper’s wife Mae.

Williams won his second Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Cat in 1955. (He took home his first Pulitzer Prize for A Streetcar Named Desire in 1948.) The original Broadway production of Cat ran for 694 performances and earned four 1956 Tony Award nominations, including nominations for Best Play and Best Director, but won no Tonys.

The 1958 motion-picture version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Richard Brooks and adapted for the screen by James Poe and Brooks, starred Paul Newman as Brick and Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie. Burl Ives and Madeleine Sherwood repeated their stage roles as Big Daddy and Mae, and Judith Anderson played Big Mama and Jack Carson played Gooper. The film earned six Academy Award nominations, including nominations for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actor (Newman); Best Actress (Taylor); Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Brooks and Poe); and Best Color Cinematography (William H. Daniels).

But Cat took home no Oscars. Moreover, Tennessee Williams hated the movie version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with all references to homosexuality excised to meet the strictures of the Hollywood Production Code so much that he stood outside the theater and told people lined up to see it: “This movie will set the industry back 50 years. Go home!”

Kenny Gannon notes that Cat is “set in and written in the 1950s, [but it has] resonances with modern America appear on every page and in every scene. Truth is seen as something of a cancer in and of itself. Best not to speak of it, not to utter the word for fear of the repercussions.

“Big Daddy may be abusive and brutal,” Gannon says, “but there is something ironically refreshing in his truthful tirades. Big Daddy speaks what is truly on his mind. Nothing is hidden. And, indeed, it seems almost no one can handle it. Best to keep up the facade of family, future and good health.”

“Thematically,” Gannon says, “there is a lot of talk about subjects, hot-button issues on today’s political bill of fare, that remain problematical for American society: homosexuality and the fear of homosexuality; greed and the American Dream; nationalism and hubris; family values as they pertain to keeping up appearances; and, quite stunningly, disparaging references to Europe and the Middle East.”

Gannon claims, “One need only look to the headlines of today to see how American society has become bent on parsing the truth and avoiding the truth in order to maintain our allegiance to a political agenda. Bill Clinton did it, and now George Bush is doing it.

“Parsing the truth to save political face is an art,” Gannon explains. “Sit in church on Sunday and espouse high moral values while secretly having affairs in the Oval Office or leaking classified information to destroy a political opponent.

“With the South’s rise to political preeminence in terms of clout and setting the agenda,” Gannon explains, “Big Daddy can be seen as a stunning surrogate for presidents, senators, fathers, CEOs, etc. One can see in Big Daddy’s family a mirror image of political operatives who strive to shield their Big Daddy from the awful truth of corruption/cancer.”

He adds, “The analogy runs dry, however, as we see in Big Daddy someone who honors truth above all else. So, despite his violent nature, he becomes something admirable and tragic.

“Modern America values material possessions and political power above all else,” claims Gannon. “There seems to be no end to the ways we delude ourselves.”

He adds, “Cat is a masterpiece of a play about lying and liars, about cultural fears, about hiding from death, about greed and material possessions. Williams was never more brilliant or more poetic. Never more brutal or on target. One need only think of the fond remembrances for simpler, happier times from the likes of Bernard Goldberg and his current rant[s] against American liberalism [Bias and Arrogance] to see how daring and avant garde Williams’ work remains.

“Unlike Ward Cleaver,” Gannon says, “Big Daddy swears like a sailor. Unlike Ward Cleaver and the phony image Beaver’s father represents, Big Daddy demands the awful truth of mortality be told and told in the frankest and most violent of terms.”

He adds, “Goldberg longs for something that never existed, except as a lie told for the sake of political expedience. Williams bravely exposed the lie of the 1950s during the 1950s. Williams speaks the truth and no playwright, American or otherwise, has ever done so more poetically or brilliantly.”

Kenny Gannon says, “One need only look at the Hollywood film of Cat to see that Hollywood could not face the truth either. Masking and obliterating the actual themes of the play behind of the beauty of Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor is ironic to say the least. Hollywood is no better than Washington. Never has been. Never will be.”

Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presents Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Wednesday-Saturday, July 20-23 and July 27-30, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, July 24 and 31, at 2 p.m. in The Kennedy Theater in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $35 per ticket or $50 for two tickets (except July 20th). Note: Special student and group rates are available, and anyone who brings a picture of their “cat on a roof” to the BTI Box Office will buy a third and fourth ticket for only $20 each. BTI Box Office: 919/831-6060. Group Rates: 919/828-3726. Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy: http://www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org/ [inactive 1/06]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=2442. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0051459/. Tennessee Williams (Mississippi Writers Page, compiled by University of Mississippi): http://www.olemiss.edu/depts/english/ms-writers/dir/williams_tennessee/ [inactive 8/05] and (Perspectives in American Literature: A Research and Reference Guide): http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap8/williams.html [inactive 12/06].


   
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