A Night of Thunder

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof sizzles with outsized, epic emotion.

by Quinton Skinner I Director of Communications, Guthrie Theater

In the canon of American theater, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof would represent a glaring omission from any comprehensive all-time-best list. This is Tennessee Williams at his greatest: taking place in real time in a single night at the Pollitt family's Mississippi estate, it possesses emotional explosiveness akin to a dying star, full of lies, frustration and greed.

Director Lisa Peterson describes a balancing act in bringing it to the stage. "It's a real room and real people in the play," she says. "But they are big people, with outsized needs and feelings, and with this amazing language to express all of it."

Of course at the center of the action is the thwarted marriage between Margaret (Emily Swallow) and Brick (Peter Christian Hansen). Brick, a one-time football hero, has retreated into liquor and confusion over his friendship with Skipper, a football buddy who has recently committed suicide. Margaret, whose marriage into the Pollitt clan represents a rise in her fortunes, exists in a state of perpetual frustration, with a husband who spurns her touch and seems bent on destroying any potential for a happy ending.

But there's much more. "This play has me very interested in money, in economics," adds Peterson. "There's this group of people coming together on this night because Big Daddy (David Anthony Brinkley) is or isn't dying. He hasn't written a will but has a huge fortune. The stakes are very high."

Williams has bundled together circumstances that expertly ratchet up the evening's tension. The real state of Big Daddy's health has been hid from him and his wife Big Mama (Melissa Hart) by their children. Brick's brother Gooper (Chris Carlson) is openly angling for a favorable share of the family estate. The action portrays a crisscrossing of motivations, despair and denial that elevates the tone into the stratospheric. Decades of lies and false assumptions are packed into a compressed, nuclear core.

"It's a little bit like a cage, or a boxing ring," Peterson says. "It's really lively."

Referencing the 1955 Broadway production of Cat, directed by Elia Kazan, Peterson talks of "Tennessee's sense that this was more than just a realistic play -- but also his fear about going too far out into the world of the surreal. From the record that exists, Kazan saw this as an existential hot play about real people and real feelings, but so excavated that it was more than just real."

And that's where the heat comes from -- the friction between the story of a family in crisis and their monumentally outsized passions. In a crucial scene when Big Daddy attempts to communicate with Brick man to man, it's across an impassable divide: both are haunted by their apprehension of the specters of truth, the lifelong ghosts living in their heart that they have tried in their way to keep at bay.

Or, as Peterson puts it, "It's big realism, expanded realism. And those actors are going to be in your lap."

Thirty-five years have passed since Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has played on the Guthrie stage, with its heated two-person scenes and thunderous ensemble climax. This time out, the house threatens to shake with operatic passions.

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