“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” by Tennessee Williams, 6th Street Playhouse, Santa Rosa CA

From left, Kate Brickley (seated), Jenifer Cote, Charles Siebert

Photo by Eric Chazankin

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

This “Cat” Sizzles

As a premier North Bay theatre, award-winning 6th Street Playhouse has scored big with recent triumphs like “A Christmas Story”, “The 39 Steps” and “Proof”. Their latest offering, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” raises the bar even higher. The excellent cast is directed with searing ferocity, showcasing the brutality of Truth for one wealthy Southern family. Truth is the play’s overarching theme: refusing to face it, trying to conceal it, or pleading for its revelation. The air crackles with it like electricity. It generates the same heat as sexual tension, and while there’s plenty of that, too, it’s Truth that is this play’s life-blood.

At 6th Street, this legendary Tennessee Williams classic is presented in all its raw, primal glory, as Williams first envisioned. Because it was deemed too controversial for 1955 audiences, stage director Elia Kazan (who later directed the equally sanitized film version) changed or deleted many of the play’s key scenes and dialogue for its Broadway debut, much to the playwright’s chagrin. Then, for its 1974 Broadway revival, the controversial passages were reinstated. It’s this version that is being presented now at 6th Street. In that 1974 production, by The American Shakespeare Theatre Company, Williams worked closely with director Michael Kahn and the cast members to restore the play to its original form. Williams allowed the actors to see the original drafts of his script and encouraged their input on the lines they would speak. Among those lucky actors was Charles Siebert, in the role of Gooper.

Thirty-eight years later, Siebert is performing in “Cat” once again, this time treading the boards at 6th Street in the plum role of Pollitt family patriarch Big Daddy. Siebert seems born to the role, taking charge of everything in sight. From the moment he ambles onstage, he brings the story into focus, becoming the force to be reckoned with.

Another force of nature is Maggie the Cat (Jenifer Cote), the sensual, frustrated wife of Big Daddy’s favorite son Brick. Maggie is frantic in her efforts to uncover truth of more than one kind, and Cote infuses her with an edgy, abrasive appeal. Although her performance may benefit from a bit more nuance at times, Cote skillfully walks the line between antagonism and sympathy. Brick (Clint Campbell), the family’s Golden Boy, carries an agonizing secret. He still has the fine body of the athlete he once was, but has been hitting the bottle hard lately, brooding and withdrawn. Campbell underplays his role with sullen grace, his anger boiling just beneath the surface ready to erupt at the lightest touch.

Big Mama (Kate Brickley) seems like an innocent bystander in her subservience to her husband and sons. Brickley plays her with an open directness that makes her seem like the only character with no hidden agenda. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Mae (Beth Deitchman), Brick’s grasping, grating sister-in-law and source of Maggie’s growing rage. Deitchman delivers a gleefully wicked turn as the conniving drama queen. Gooper (Tice Allison) bears resentment and jealousy of his brother Brick which allows him to be poisoned by his wife Mae’s schemes. Rounding out the strong cast are Samson Hood (Rev. Tooker), Joe Winkler (Dr. Baugh) and Sophia Rubin-Davis (Lacey), along with child actors Alyssa Jirrels, Christopher Calloway, Cabrilla Wiecek, Fiona Sarter and Gavin Kirn as those dreadful "little no-neck monsters".

Director Michael Fontaine really comes into his own with this production, guiding his superb cast in one of his finest efforts to date. His bold, daring realization of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, Tennessee Williams’ own personal favorite of all his plays, is a fitting tribute to one of America’s legendary playwrights. Fontaine is supported by wonderful stagecraft: Virginia Winter’s gorgeous costumes make you long for the 1950s; April George’s lighting and set design by Peter Crompton combine to form a visual feast. This is one helluva scorching hot show, one of the strongest of the season.

When: Now through March 25, 2012
8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays
2 p.m. Sundays
2 p.m. Saturday March 24
Tickets: $15 to $32
Location: 6th Street Playhouse – GK Hardt Theatre, 52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa CA
Phone: 707-523-4185
Website: www.6thstreetplayhouse.com