By Leonard Hughes
As you’re spending January shivering against these sub-freezing wind-chills and bracing yourselves for the next bomb cyclone, I strongly urge you to seek refuge in Falls Church with Tennessee Williams’s dysfunctional Pollitt family in Zemfira Stage’s sizzling production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
On a warm summer evening at the Pollitt’s plantation home in the Mississippi Delta, the clan has gathered to celebrate their patriarch’s 65th birthday — but it may be his last: Big Daddy has been diagnosed with inoperable cancer.
Don’t assume that glum subject matter portends a maudlin or depressing soap opera: Zemfira director Zina Bleck has allowed her professional-calibre cast to evoke all the humor and subtleties that Williams intended in his original 1955 drama.
You may recall the classic 1958 film version with Elizabeth Taylor in the title role and Burl Ives as Big Daddy. Film guru Leonard Maltin has characterized it as “somewhat laundered but still packing a wallop.”
Only the latter can be said of the Zemfira production, since it isn’t bound by Hollywood’s need to sanitize or sentimentalize the material. In a realistic and lively show, this cast has succeeded in realizing Williams’s intent “to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people,” as he has noted in the play’s script.
At the heart of the plot is the troubled marriage of Maggie “the Cat” and Big Daddy’s favorite son Brick.
Samantha Dawn Franklin pulls off a theatrical tour de force, presenting Maggie as a believable young woman who has had to fight her way out of tough family upbringing and must now contend with the stressful challenge of coping with a drastically indifferent husband and her new obnoxious relatives, who are jockeying for a good spot in Big Daddy’s yet unwritten will.
Franklin opens the first act sustaining a performance for more than half an hour as Maggie rails against her greedy sister-in-law and the “no-neck monsters” that are “Sister Woman’s” bratty breed, all the while chiding her booze-guzzling hubby and trying to seduce him at the same time.
Ben Maderi is perfectly aloof as the aptly named Brick (played by Paul Newman in the screen version). Maderi has only to try to ignore Maggie’s rant, but in the second act, he reveals Brick’s humanity as he spars with Big Daddy.
Franklin masterfully sets the stage for that second act, when we are introduced to the big man, and the full power of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play comes alive—as well as its humor.
James McDaniel 5th plays Big Daddy as a force of nature. Profane, witty, nasty (though not really cruel), Big Daddy could easily come across as an unsympathetic lout, but McDaniel takes such powerful command of his character, you overlook the plantation owner’s short-comings, and begin to realize he is the central vision of the play, if not a conventional hero.
Meanwhile, Zemfira’s take on this drama of family strife includes a cast that is truly a family affair. Mae Pollitt, a.k.a. Sister Woman, is played by Samantha Kearney, who in real life, is married to Tom Kearney, who plays her husband Goober (Brother Man). Samantha Kearney is perfectly and appropriately self serving as Mae, and Tom Kearney offers a Goober who is surprisingly sympathetic, despite his attempt to grab the lion’s share of the estate, should Big Daddy croke.
The Kearney’s talented children Dara and Jack Kearney, along with Nathaniel Manarin, are the excruciatingly abrasive Pollitt kids, the aforementioned “no-neck monsters.” Their birthday song for the visibly annoyed Big Daddy is as exactly irritating as it ought to be.
Denise Wilson-Morgan plays a shrill and naïve Big Mama, whose denial of her husband’s bad health is adamant. In the third act, Wilson-Morgan takes a dramatic turn as her character confronts the reality. Wilson-Morgan last month stepped into the role, which was originally intended for Marji Jepperson, who passed away Dec. 24 after a long illness, when the Washington theater community lost one of its finest actors.
Wilson-Morgan’s real-life son Scott Morgan gets a few good laughs in the small role of Reverand Tooker. Liam Allee is ominous as Big Daddy’s doctor, and Sally Ann Flores offers calm and quiet support as Sookie, the Pollitt’s maid.
The Zemfira set, designed by Bleck and Ellen Franklin, is attractively appointed with period furniture. And the production’s lighting and sound are well executed by designer Stacy King. Stage Manager Hannah Butler and technical designer Rich Prien put it all together backstage.
This is a fabulous production of a classic American play—likely the best Tennessee Williams you will see all year. Don’t be intimidated by its length, running almost three hours. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” has a lot to impart. Brick grapples with his sexual identity, Maggie contends with the crisis of her life, and Big Daddy confronts existential issues of life and death.
Sadly, on opening night, no more than 11 people showed up in the audience. They were well rewarded for their commitment.