By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Here's something that might happen with a play, but not with a movie: You go to see it again and because of a different interpretation, or the way an ensemble clicks, or maybe a fresh staging that literally moves the play in a new direction, it's as if you've never seen it before. The production you're watching has given it a new and different life.
That's what's happening at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, where Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, an American classic, is playing out as if our besotted, bewitched and brilliant playwright of the last century had written it last night.
I've seen strident Cats and dark Cats and even a pensive one. But I've never been swept by a Cat as blistering, fast-moving and, simply, moving as the production Thomas Ouellette has conjured — and with the same cast that bounds on and off the stage in the flighty Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare's trickster comedy that alternates at the festival in repertory with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Imagine, turning a story into a piece of theater that's a joy to watch by methodically plucking a taut, raw nerve over three acts. A more modern play, also with an addict at its center and a doomed family patriarch, has become known for just that — the popular August: Osage County. But Williams' play, more subtle and simpler in its plot, has no big mystery hanging over it to boost its tension, as does August. It's just one sultry Southern night with a family haunted by the crushing end of stability.
That's because Big Daddy (Joe Vincent, who makes the character a wily mix of straightforward and dismissive) is dying – something we learn early on but he doesn't know. He runs his 28,000-acre plantation in the Mississippi Delta as a captain of Southern power, using the land's force of nature to complement his own.
His wife (Jo Twiss, in a soaring performance that nicely shifts the play's energy to her character) is a robust Southern lady he has come to hate. His outlandishly handsome son Brick (daytime TV and theater actor Tom Degnan, piercing in his iceberg indifference) is a failed sports announcer and a top-notch lush, his daughter-in-law Maggie (the hot, dogged Australian actress Eleanor Handley) is a childless, alluring tigress. His other son and daughter-in-law (Rob Kahn and Carey Van Driest) are fertility machines who have provided him with grandchildren but no joy.
And that's the fabric of the family, accompanied by a laundry list of indelible stains that tracks through Williams' manufactured worlds: fizzled loyalty, impotence, drunkenness, shame, jealousy, lying and — oh!, let's not forget — sexual misgivings, which this production puts out there center-stage, even though other Cats may have it drift curiously in the background.
Bob Phillips creates a high-ceilinged plantation bedroom with liquor tables on both sides, and a sweeping outside balcony to the rear, and costume designer Lisa Zinni dresses Handley's Maggie in a red form-fitter that Handley gives a language of its own. Thom Weaver brings a moonlight to the last scene that empties Degnan's Brick of any substance left in him but the booze. And Ouellette's direction manages to let in a thin ray of something like hope in the final seconds. This Cat doesn't have claws, it has daggers.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, email@example.com, or #philastage on Twitter.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Through August 5 at the Pennyslvania Shakespeare Festival, on the DeSales University campus, 2755 Station Ave., Center Valley, Pa., near Quakertown. Tickets: $25-$52. Information: 610-282-9455 or www.pashakespeare.org. The cast is performing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in repertory with Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.