Maggie the Cat, Declawed

It wasn't easy being queer in America in 1953, when Tennessee Williams settled into a Key West studio to begin writing Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. Earlier that year, Miami passed an ordinance requiring chaperones in movie theaters to protect teenage customers from “homosexual predators.” In the summer, while living in New York, Williams witnessed a roundup of gay men in bars and on beaches, the names of those arrested appearing in the newspapers. Then, moving to New Orleans, he witnessed scores of men and women arrested in LGBT bars across the city. Homosexuality was under siege in America, and while it was obviously difficult to out oneself, it was just as dangerous to even be suspected.

That context certainly factored into Cat. Brick Pollitt, former star athlete turned drunkard, has given up on family and future in favor of the bottle. But his wife, Maggie—the Cat—is determined to not let him. She loves him fiercely, but she knows that without him—and the sizeable inheritance he stands to get if he can pull himself together, or at least knock her up—she is destined to remain in the same relative poverty she grew up in.

There's one problem: Brick won't sleep in the same bed as her, let alone touch her. And the reason for that has been one of the most analyzed and dissected subjects in American drama: “Is Brick gay?”

No production, short of brazenly tweaking Williams' script (such as, say, including Brick beating off to pictures of naked men), can truly answer that. Williams is ambiguous in the writing, leaving it up to each audience member to ponder the question. Nor is there a clear answer in this STAGEStheatre production. It's a straightforward staging, and director Joe Parrish, who also plays patriarch Big Daddy, doesn't seem overly concerned with making a statement about Brick's sexuality or the anything-but-conclusive final moments of the play. (One thing is clear, however, in this show: Whatever Brick is wrestling with, the two people whose opinion matters the most, his wife and his father, don't judge him harshly.)

It's admirable to do the play as written and let audience members walk away with questions instead of ramming answers down their gullets. Where this production stumbles, however, is that it's difficult to care about Brick's plight or that of the other major characters. This is a play about many things: the mendacity of affluent Americans; the conflict between illusion and truth; choosing life or death. But it's all bound in the sweaty, sticky ribbon of sexual energy, whether restrained or amplified. And this production fails to generate much heat. And without that heat, the characters never truly bloom.

Maggie is the one character who clearly chooses life. Unfortunately, while striking to look at, Lysa Apostle's Maggie feels more petulant and stubborn than energized to win back her husband in bed and seizing her destiny. She seems reactive rather than the most dynamic character on a stage surrounded by those facing spiritual, psychic or physical demise. Matthew Migliorini's [1] Brick is also reactive—but while just as pleasing on the eyes as Maggie, he also seems to lack the smoldering fire that supports his occasional physical outbursts. The most vigorous characters are Parrish and Rose London as the long-suffering matriarch, Big Mama. While Parrish doesn't capture the towering grandiosity of Big Daddy, he delivers a rich, funny performance, and when the older guy talks of reclaiming life by finding some young hottie to bang, it's one of the few times in which sexual energy actually manifests.

Why Brick has chosen the bottle over his wife and any sustainable future—because of closeted feelings for his best friend, Skipper, because of his and Maggie's role in Skipper's fate, or merely because he lives in fear of even being suspected of harboring impure urges—remains Cat On a Hot Tin Roof's most compelling question. And you can't help but wonder why feminists haven't latched onto this work as emblematic of American misogyny, whether spawned from a straight or gay writer's vision. All three women are continually told to shut up or berated. For a contemporary viewer, that feels more problematic than Brick's sexuality.

Even with that wincing aspect (and a poor directorial choice to use soft music underscoring in the play's final moment, lessening the impact of the very real choice Maggie and Brick contemplate, one that will either save or destroy at least one character), this is a solid production that tells Williams' story well and gives his poetic, coarse dialogue free rein. The fact it never elevates to the raw energy of street cats going at it in an alley is regrettable, but not fatal.


[1] The actor playing Brick was misidentified as Mark Bowen in the original version. The Weekly regrets the error.

Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???

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