Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

As produced by Austin Playhouse, Tennessee Williams' 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' leaps and lands on its feet with aplomb

Arts Review

Cat on a Hot Tin RoofAustin Playhouse, through Oct. 30

Running Time: 2 hrs, 30 min

Sex and Death. From heroic writings Greek to grim musings Russian – and everything around, in between, and throughout human literature – the two subjects consume us. In the singular creative imagination of Tennessee Williams, these two primal constants give dramatic urgency to his story of one family from Mississippi's landed gentry (outrageously wealthy cotton plantation owner Big Daddy, his wife, two sons, and two daughters-in-law), who engage in rituals of survival, succession, and procreation under the sometime heavy hand of the playwright. Williams' poetic language ranges from pompous fluff to base obscenity to brutal, bare-bones honesty, cascading out of characters' mouths as they try to figure out life's great mysteries, as well as their own more mundane ones. My, they do love to talk, these people, but it is impossible not to find oneself sucked into the intense morass of histories and rivalries among Williams' particular breed of semitragic characters.

As produced by the Austin Playhouse, this Cat leaps and lands on its feet with aplomb. Director Don Toner picked a perfect cast for this revival, led by Dirk van Allen as a cantankerous yet philosophical Big Daddy. Van Allen fairly bursts with revulsion at the liars around him – his kin angling for the estate upon his death – as well as his old self, settling where there was still life in him to expand his horizons. In the second act's long conversation between Big Daddy and the sullen, reclusive alcoholic favorite son, Brick, van Allen offers a depth of understanding in Big Daddy that seems radically progressive for a plantation owner in the Deep South in the 1950s. Mary Agen Cox provides a fine character study of overdoting wife with a backbone of steel, trying to keep the family on a steady course in spite of the obvious rifts between them, and between her and Big Daddy. Decorum is all, and she continuously papers over those rifts and differences, adding frail layers to a lifetime of lies. Michael Stuart and Janet Hurley Kimlicko are Gooper and Mae, the older couple of the inheriting generation, with a mission to win Big Daddy's estate. Kimlicko's stage-mom is perfectly judged to annoy yet never lose sight of the character's compulsive silliness, her obsequiousness matched by the fire of her competitive nature. Stuart's lawyer-son pleads his case, sometimes whining, sometimes with sharp invective, in another strong performance by the veteran actor.

The play pivots on the younger couple, Brick and his effervescent wife, Maggie. He's washed up, or that's how he sees it. A former athlete who's hit the bottle after his best friend has died. She – Big Mama-like – is working to repair their marriage, but if Big Mama papers over problems, Maggie excavates them and tries to rebuild: urging her immobilized man to sleep with her. Maggie is the cat who won't leap off the burning roof to save herself, choosing to stay with the man she loves, to dig deep into his psyche, to bulldoze the dazed man back from his boozy oblivion. As Brick, Judson L. Jones works another role that seems written just for him: a dark, inward-looking man with mysteries that never get resolved. As Maggie, Christa Kimlicko Jones (the two are married in real life) does indeed effervesce. Kimlicko Jones fairly radiates on stage; even when she's standing in the upstage shadows or sitting on the big unused bed (over which hangs a painting of a cornucopia – a brilliant detail in this thoughtful production), this actress demands you watch her. Playwright Williams gives Maggie so much thankless exposition in the opening act, and it can get a bit wearying, but Kimlicko Jones never strays from her focal point: Whether primping or gossiping or plotting, she lives for Brick, for the survival of their marriage, and to win the family estate. This is Kimlicko Jones' final performance before she leaves town (Jud to follow her to New York not long after). In the years she's been in Austin, Kimlicko Jones has repeatedly proven her onstage strength and passion, never more so than in this play. Austin loses one of its leading lights when this actress takes her last bow.

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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams, Austin Playhouse, Don Toner, Dirk van Allen, Mary Agen Cox, Michael Stuart, Janet Hurley Kimlicko, Judson L. Jones, Christa Kimlicko Jones

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