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Cats and Cradles

Playhouse on the Square revives a Tennessee Williams classic.

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In the second act of Tennessee Williams' 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Big Daddy Pollitt, a rich Delta planter deceived by his family into believing he's not dying of cancer, tries to have an honest conversation with his alcoholic son Brick, who stopped sleeping with his wife Maggie and crawled into a bottle shortly after the death of his best friend Skipper. The coarse old man tells rambling stories of his days sleeping in hobo jungles, talks about the time he spent working as an overseer for "that old pair of sissies" Jack Straw and Peter Ochello, and tells his favorite, presumably gay son about the one thing you can grow on 28,000 acres that's more valuable than cotton: tolerance. Hoping to keep Brick from following his friend into an early grave, he says he's seen too much of the world to be shocked by a little same-sex loving and loosely suggests that he might have even known a bit of it himself.

It's a strange sentiment to come pouring from the mouth of a character Williams describes as a "Mississippi redneck," and Brick, a former football star and the epitome of 1950s masculinity, is revolted by the ease with which his father addresses the forbidden topic. The painful confrontation causes the younger Pollitt to take a kind of revenge by telling the truth about his father's condition. It's the play's most brutal scene, and 52 years after Cat's Broadway premiere, Williams' poeticized language still rings true, even when the actors delivering the dialogue are a little wooden.

Joneal Joplin is an effective, functional Big Daddy, though he brings nothing new to a role originally defined by folk singer Burl Ives. Joplin strides about the stage cursing in a booming radio announcer's voice burdened with an aristocratic drawl. Like so many Big Daddys before him, Joplin ignores the character's rough, impoverished back-story and makes him into a foul-mouthed Foghorn Leghorn. The clichéd Southern affectations are particularly glaring compared to Joe Murphy's understated but occasionally electrifying Brick.

Brian Mott and Dana Terle both do excellent work as Gooper and Mae, a pair of grotesques representing "the breeders" among us. Wordlessly, the couple fill the room with lies using little more than a glance or a hand signal. Irene Crist is an equally understated Big Mama, finding strength and sass where other actresses usually resort to cheap tears.

Maggie the Cat, Brick's ambitious, sexually frustrated wife, is one of Williams' most celebrated heroines, but in the wrong hands her endless monologues can be shrill and annoying. Joy Marr finds little of the character's inherent sex appeal but accomplishes her goals well enough. One gets the sense that she's no more interested in sex than Brick but determined to get her rightful share of the family inheritance.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is easily Williams' most classically themed play, borrowing hugely from Shakespeare's King Lear and the collected work of Russian realist Anton Chekhov. The dialogue is intricate, entrancing, and loaded with iconic imagery of the American South. The action seems right at home on Larry Brown's beautifully realized set, which subtly uses at least one unsubtle image: The tree branch hanging over the veranda immediately conjures up visions of Gone with the Wind. It's a kitschy element but an effective one in a play that reminds us that tomorrow is indeed another day for those lucky enough to make it through the long, dark night.

When Drew Fracher visits Playhouse on the Square to direct a classic, it usually means Memphis theatergoers are in for a pleasant surprise. Under his supervision, Macbeth was expertly transformed into a visually staggering rock-and-roll nightmare about sex, power, and addiction. His expressionistic vision for Of Mice and Men placed Steinbeck's migrant workers in a world turned, quite literally, on its side. Compared to these two efforts, Fracher's Cat seems uninspired -- good, but not great.

Through February 25th

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