When Tennessee Williams came out with "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" in 1958, its shock value propelled it to notoriety. Today, a yawn is the most likely reaction to once naughty words like "crap," "fairies" and "rutting," but the lack of titillation actually lets the play's serious themes come across more clearly. The outrageous Mr. Williams turns out to have been exploring wholesome concepts: how love fights for survival in even the most broken families and how the lies one tells oneself are more crippling than the harshest truth.
Williams' play, now showing at the Vokes Theatre, takes place in modern times on the flourishing Delta plantation of Big Daddy Pollitt (Robert Zawistowski), an irrepressible life force who has yet to learn he is dying of cancer. The vultures are hovering. They include his unloved lawyer son, Gooper (convincingly played by Bob Williams), Gooper's scheming, pregnant wife, Mae (Tara Stepanian), and their five offstage "no-neck-monster" offspring.
Big Daddy's alcoholic, ex-football-hero son Brick (Michael O'Connor) is there with wife Maggie (Christina Voros), another powerful life force, who sees Big Daddy's estate slipping into the avaricious grasp of the son with all the children. But whether this girl from a dirt-poor family gets to inherit luxury is the least of her worries. Maggie is burning up from sexual frustration. The husband she loves blames her for the loss of his dearest friend and no longer touches her.
The characters storm in and out of Maggie and Brick's bedroom (designed by Stephen McGonagle with French doors opening upstage onto a gracious veranda at twilight). On a wicker loveseat, Brick nurses an injured foot, endless cocktails and soggy self-pity. His injury prevents him from coming to the dining room, so family and friends gather in his bedroom to celebrate Big Daddy's 65th birthday.
With the idea of protecting Big Daddy and Big Mama (Sheila Kadra) until after cake and candles, the celebrants create the fiction that Big Daddy's recent medical tests have revealed only a spastic colon, not cancer. It is one of many lies the play explores.
Between the four-poster bed and the vanity mirror reflecting the turmoil, the family members mercilessly attack one another's lies and hide from their own. Maggie struggles to set right a past episode with Brick's best buddy, Skipper, which ultimately led to Skipper's death and Brick's escape to the bottle. Comparing herself to a cat trying to stay on a hot tin roof, she is determined to hang on to her husband -- and to her zest for living. Her anguish and determination are palpable as she howls from the bottom of her soul, "Maggie the Cat is alive!"
Maggie and Big Daddy, though adept with white lies, keep pushing for truth about damaging secrets that cannot be hidden forever. Their pushing and their love for Brick finally forces Brick to admit to himself that Skipper loved him in a way that horrified him and that in hanging up on Skipper's confession, he, not Maggie, destroyed both the friendship he so valued ("the one true thing") and his own belief in life. The play offers no pat conclusion, but Brick's revelation provides a turning point that allows hope.
D Schweppe, who directed the Vokes production, shows that Williams' enduring gift is his truth telling about troubled families and their unexpected strengths.
Tara Stepanian produced the show. The lighting was by Betsy Burr, costumes by Ann J. Carnaby and properties by Mary Ellen Pastor. John Chiachiaretta, sound designer, evoked both birthday fireworks and thunder. The roots music of "O Brother, Where Art Thou" played unobtrusively during intermissions, although in the scene where Big Daddy talks to Brick of life and death, the selection from the movie soundtrack was bizarre. (The hired hands on the Pollitt plantation have chosen as their birthday tribute the chain-gang song, with its chorus of "dead or alive" and its deafening accompaniment of prisoners splitting rocks.)
Rounding out the cast are Tom Dinger as the nervous Rev. Tooker, who seeks a Pollitt bequest for his church, Michael Gowing as Dr. Baugh and Liesbeth Wenzel as the servant, Lacey. The play runs through May 18. For information, call (508) 358-4034.