Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” has been done in so many versions and adaptations over the years that it is easy to lose sight of Williams’ original intentions. It’s not only that the still commonly seen cleaned-up 1958 film version that made megastars out of Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor dumped the adultery and only hinted at the play’s homosexual subtext, but from the beginning, changes were made to the performing version of the play itself. The earliest were made to suit the 1955 show’s original director Elia Kazan, even though the published version remained the same. Then Williams himself made changes for a 1974 revival that are often considered his “final word” on the text of the play, though Williams encouraged directors and casts to improvise aspects of the show as they saw fit.
The current Circle Theatre production, directed by Jim Schneider who gave us last year’s wonderful “Hay Fever” and “The Ideal Husband” of a couple of seasons ago, preserves aspects of Williams’ original work as he conceived it, principally in that Maggie, the “cat” of the show (Kimberly Logan), is less sympathetic and more manipulative, and that her husband Brick (Michael Borgmann) does not undergo as explicit a transformation as directors often like to superimpose on the character. But some later additions are also reflected here, most notably Big Daddy (Jim Farrell) remaining onstage for the final act—in the original, he is only an Act II character, though alluded to in anticipation in Act I, and in retrospect in Act III—and in the ending being staged so explicitly that the ambiguity that is often seen as the message of the play is made to evaporate.
The overall effect of these choices gives us a work drenched in the homophobia of the day (Williams, who was gay but admitted he had been “conflicted” about his sexual identity, used to joke that the only thing worse than being a Communist during the McCarthy era was to be a homosexual) that underlines that the father-son confrontation of Act II forces both to accept painful truths about themselves: one so that he can begin to live, the other so that he can begin to let go.
More than half a century later, where sexual orientation appears to be the final frontier of acceptable cultural prejudice, what do we make of Brick not only giving in to Maggie to conceive a child with her after finally confronting his sexual identity, but to do so in such a macho manner when he has been a jellyfish for the rest of the play? This appears to be tacking on the rom-com movie interpretation of some sort of “happy” ending, but unlike the film, too much has been revealed here in the previous three hours for that to be plausible, unless Brick’s homosexuality is being portrayed as either a whim or a disease to be cured.
Nonetheless, what stands out in this production is how effectively the cast inhabits the world of the play, effectively transporting us to the Deep South of yesteryear where we really do feel as if we are eavesdropping on the proceedings surrounding Big Daddy’s sixty-fifth birthday party. And though some emotional arcs and accents are more consistent than others, the real standout performance is Deanna Norman’s Big Mama who, in this production, stands as the emotional heart of the play: the truth of Big Daddy’s condition does not fully register with us until we feel it through her reaction to it. (Dennis Polkow)
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” plays through October 4 at Circle Theatre, 7300 W. Madison, Forest Park, (708)771-0700. $18-$24.