Set on a Mississippi plantation, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” — one of Tennessee Williams’ best works and his personal favorite — features recurring motifs such as greed, superficiality, mendacity, decay, sexual desire, repression and death.
These issues are examined through the relationships among members of a family of a wealthy cotton tycoon in State College Community Theatre’s production of Williams’ drama at the Penn State Citizen’s Bank Downtown Theatre Center.
Winner of the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is considered by many to be Williams’ finest work. Although there are many different versions of the play, this SCCT production is not the one that most people know, nor is it the 1958 movie version that starred Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman.
The first Broadway production was directed by Elia Kazan in 1955. Williams made substantial revisions and alterations to the play for a revival in 1974. This has been the version used for most subsequent revivals, which have been numerous. But when it comes to the actual text of the play, is it the author’s or the director’s?
Director Mary Beth Geppert believes the author is the director.
“The writer spent hours aching over the words, deciding what order, what sounds, what dynamics and what to cut; so my job is to help the actors interpret a great poetic text,” she said. “The writer made those choices, and Williams is a master of the American dialect. Our version is Williams’ preferred version originally produced at the American Shakespeare Company in 1974. Rarely is this text produced, and I am thrilled to be working with Williams’ choice text.”
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” features Edward Strause as Big Daddy Pollitt, Torri Bouslough as Margaret “Maggie” Pollitt, Steve Travis as Brick, Rachel Moon as Big Mama Ida, Jenifer Mahley as Mae, Eric Ziegler as Gooper, Aaron Scott as Sonny, Andrew Schall as Reverend Tooker, Charlie Wilson as Doctor Baugh and Erin Belden as Sookie. Geppert directs, with co-production by Jonathan Hetler and Amy Farkas.
Strause is a Penn State graduate who taught German in the State College Area School District for 30 years.
“Teaching German required a good deal of dramatization, so you could say that I have been acting and honing my craft for the 30 years that I taught,” he said.
“Big Daddy Pollitt is a complex character,” Strause said. “He is a self-made success as a planter who is very much in control of his life and household, except for his alcoholic son and his failing health.”
Bouslough is a senior at Penn State majoring in theater performance.
“I did a lot of shows with my community theater, which just made my passion grow more and helped me decide I wanted to make a career of it,” she said. “I auditioned for the School of Theatre my freshman year at PSU and got in. Getting accepted into the theater program at Penn State was a dream come true.”
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is a story about a family in crisis. The Pollitt family is facing the death of their patriarch, Big Daddy Pollitt. But it’s his 65th birthday party and his offspring have chosen not to tell Big Daddy he is dying of cancer. As the story progresses, we find out Brick’s best friend, Skipper, has committed suicide after realizing through Maggie’s manipulations that he has homosexual feelings for Brick.
“That was not a socially acceptable love in 1955 Mississippi,” Geppert said. “Death and suicide are crisis enough, but add in the millions Big Daddy is worth and you have a family inheritance crisis as well. Brick and Maggie have no children as Brick refuses to sleep with his wife as he seeks solace in alcohol. Gooper and Mae have five children and one on the way. Between the two brothers and their perspective wives, who will get the money? The family golden boy, Brick, or the eldest son, Gooper?”
Geppert does not believe in placing a concept on author’s work because it changes what the author intended. Rather, the writer gives us the message through his text.
“We have a family in crisis — a crisis that every human, no matter what time period, can relate to: death, suicide, homosexuality and inheritance,” she said. “How do we deal with these issues individually? What is the concept then? Our concept comes out of our actors and how they choose to portray their particular family members.”
Bouslough expects to see all kinds of people turn out for this production, but mostly an older generation.
“This story is a classic and one of Williams’ favorite works,” she said. “I highly suggest anyone interested in arts, family, theater, 1950s southern hospitality and life should come see this production.”
“I hope the audience recognizes someone they know in the play,” Strause said. “There are enough universal themes covered here for anyone to ‘get the message.’ ”
Bouslough’s hope is that the audience will leave with a deeper respect to the meaning of family, truth and living, as well as take a good look at how the times have changed.
“I do hope they enjoy the show, because there are depressing matters that the audience will have to face with the characters,” she said. “But that is life and I always find it’s better to deal with and learn about life at the theater.”