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“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is one of Tennessee Williams' acknowledged masterpieces, yet it is a large, unwieldy play that the playwright openly struggled with. Hollywood, of course, scrubbed it clean of the frightful subject of homosexuality for its pretty version starring Elizabeth Taylor. It is said that Shakespeare wrote several problem plays — plays that are tough to stage and figure out — and “Cat” is certainly that kind of play for Williams. It is a misshapen, oddly repetitive piece and yet it comes across as Shakespearean in reach and scope.
The Arkansas Rep's take on “Cat,” directed by company artistic director Bob Hupp, is to shift intermission and embrace the length that includes the late-in-the-play family battle for the enormous estate of Big Daddy, which we are told several times contains the “richest land this side of the valley Nile.”
There are some incredible stage pictures conjured up in this production, which is graced with a clean, elegant set by Mike Nichols and costumes by Margaret A. Mc-Kowen so rich — lots of white and beige — as to be painterly. The moment right before the intermission after Big Daddy, played with great relish by Joe Vincent, decimates Big Mamma while the inconsolable Maggie (Trista Moldova) and Brick (Michael Ellison) stare out at the fireworks with their backs turned is a thrilling, heart-wrenching and theatrically stunning moment.
What makes “Cat” difficult is that it comes across as three different plays in one. The first part is all Maggie, as she delivers what is essentially a monologue to the indifferent, soon-to-be-liquor-soaked Brick. Moldova is every bit the curvaceous beauty you expect Maggie to be, but it takes a bit of time for her to gain traction in her long speeches, much of which is exposition. But she does finally grab hold and convey Maggie's desperate situation (a husband who's embraced the bottle and in-laws who are perched to grab hold of Big Daddy's fortune).
The second part is Brick and Big Daddy, and it contains some of Williams' great passages (Big Daddy's intense recollection of his “Cook's Tour” of Europe and Big Mamma's open avarice during the trip) and big plot twists (Brick's owning up to his part in the death of his friend/lover Skipper). Hupp, aided by Nichols' set, is able to orchestrate the off-stage voices and bodies, standing like ghosts behind the shutters, as well as the Gooper and Mae's wild children, who are always running in the room at the most awkward moments.
The final third, the family struggle, has been criticized as an afterthought by some, but the Rep's production makes a strong case for its vitality and necessity. Mae (a knife-sharp performance by Amy Tribbey) and Gooper (Brian Wallace, who is able to sum up the great fecklessness of his character with his silent hand gestures) stake their claim even as their own family all but dismisses them as worthless. Kathleen Doyle's Big Mamma owns much of this section and her sobs and exhortations make it absolutely compelling.
The Rep's version of “Cat” is one incredibly bleak and remorseless journey into the heart of darkness that is this family. The last image of Maggie's pyrrhic victory, where she will make Brick give her the child she wants (“make this lie a truth,” she says), closes with the forlorn look on Ellison's face. Brick tells us that he has to drink until he achieves that “click” that turns off the “hot red light” in his brain and make everything peaceful. At the end, he has his “click” but his face shows nothing close to peace. It's beautiful. It's incredibly sad. It will stay with you long after the show is over.