Tennessee Williams is widely regarded as one of America’s greatest playwrights. A fixture of 20th Century drama, Williams’ works often focused on complex and taboo subjects. His characters are frequently damaged, dealing with things like mental illness, alcoholism, and sexual deviances.
Williams first gained fame with The Glass Menagerie, which premiered in Chicago in 1944 and then transferred to Broadway in 1945. Catapulted from obscurity to instant fame, Williams went on to script such modern classics as A Streetcar Named Desire, Sweet Bird of Youth, and The Night of the Iguana.
Tennessee Williams is one of my own personal favorite playwrights. Of his plays, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof stands, in my mind, as one of his greatest theatrical achievements.
Based on his 1952 short story Three Players of a Summer Game, Williams started adapting the work into a play in 1953. It premiered on Broadway in 1955 under the direction of Elia Kazan. It was nominated for four Tony awards including Best Play, and went on to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle and Pulitzer Prize awards.
The play incorporates themes of alcoholism, infidelity, greed, death, and homosexuality. Williams continued to tinker with the script until his death in 1983. This has led to multiple versions of the script. It has been revived on Broadway in 1974, 1990, 2003, 2008, and 2013.
Now, MadKap Productions brings the turbulent story to life through November 20 at the Skokie Theatre just outside Chicago proper. This new mounting of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is given life by producer Wendy Kaplan and associate producer Wayne Mell, and under the direction of Steve Scott.
Scott has a long affiliation with the legendary Goodman Theatre – having overseen in excess of 200 productions over 30 years with the organization. Having served on advisory panels for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Illinois Arts Council, Scott has also taught at Roosevelt University, DePaul University, Loyola University, Columbia College, and Northwestern University. He has six Joseph Jefferson Award nominations under his belt, and has earned a lifetime achievement award from the League of Chicago Theatres.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is the story of Brick Pollitt, his alienated wife Maggie, and his dying father Big Daddy. Once a talented professional football player, Brick retired due to injury and took a career as a sports broadcaster.
Brick’s lifelong best friend Skipper had also played pro football alongside him, but recently committed suicide when confronted with the fact that he may be harboring romantic feelings for Brick. This has sent the former quarterback great into a downward spiral. He spends his days drinking in pursuit of something he calls “the click” – the point at which his brain is so swimming in alcohol that all the emotional torments flooding his mind drift away to nothingness.
Brick’s wife Maggie, often referred to as Maggie the Cat, desperately wants to break through to her husband, but he blames Maggie for Skipper’s death. Brick has resigned himself to cohabitating with Maggie, with no physical or emotional intimacy – an arrangement that Maggie doesn’t favor.
Brick’s father Big Daddy is a bombastic plantation owner who has been suffering from poor health. Although Big Daddy doesn’t know it, he is dying of cancer. This has led to the assembly of his children at his plantation to battle over his inheritance. Brick is indifferent to inheritance, but his wife Maggie and his brother Gooper are obsessed with getting Big Daddy to sign over the future of his empire before he dies.
I have a long history with the works of Tennessee Williams, including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It is one of the greatest plays in the history of American theater. I have studied the work extensively, have seen multiple productions, and had the great pleasure of playing Brick in a Midwest revival. When I reach the appropriate age, I would love to play Big Daddy.
When I played Brick, I added 20 pounds of muscle in the gym to achieve the look of a professional football player, I interviewed former NFL players to find out about intimate nature of relationships between players, and I videotaped myself rehearsing my lines drunk so I could recreate the alcohol-soaked cadence to capture the realism of the role.
In the MadKap production, Brick is played by Caleb Gibson. The trick to playing the character hinges on maintaining an air of aloofness and indifference, but still hinting at the anger and depression that made him divorce himself from caring in the first place.
Gibson offers a unique twist on the role. At times he sends his character into screaming tirades of animalistic rage, and also pushes the emotional frailty of the character by breaking into hysterical crying. Gibson throws himself wholeheartedly into the part and should be applauded.
Maggie the Cat is played to near perfection by Sarah Sapperstein. Act One of the three act play belongs to Maggie. Act One is a near hour of dialog by Maggie with little to play off of from her stoic husband.
As Maggie, Sapperstein finds all the multiple levels the character demands, including some new touches I had not seen in previous productions. Sarah Sapperstein is a phenomenal actress and gives a grand, career-defining performance. She joins an illustrious family of actresses to do justice to the role including Barbara Bel Geddes, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Ashley, Kathleen Turner, Ashely Judd, Mary Stuart Masterson, Anika Noni Rose, Scarlett Johansson, and Sienna Miller.
Big Daddy, the dying patriarch of the family, is played with power by Kent Joseph. Big Daddy is a self-made man. He’s a former field hand who left school at the age of 10 to join the work force. Through hard work he has become the millionaire owner of 28,000 acres of the richest land south of the Nile.
What works particularly well about Joseph’s interpretation of Big Daddy is that he shows that while he has money, he doesn’t come from money. Joseph’s Big Daddy is a crass old curmudgeon, bigger than life, and with a crude sense of humor often associated with the lower class. While Joseph demonstrates the ability to go big with the character in terms of anger, it is his childlike amusement at his own crude sense of humor that humanizes the character and makes him real.
On the plantation for Big Daddy’s 65th birthday are a host of wonderful supporting characters. Ann James has a number of really great moments as Big Momma – wife to Big Daddy and mother to Brick. James’ Big Mama is a well-meaning busy body. Although she is looked down upon by Big Daddy and their eldest son Gooper, Big Mama knows more than people give her credit for. She is also surprisingly stronger than her family think her to be.
Brick’s brother Gooper is played by Reid Harrison O’Connell. Referred to in the dialog of the play as being eight years Brick’s senior, Gooper is the resentful overlooked son. Where Brick is a golden boy of the family who can do no wrong, Gooper is the overlooked son. Despite helping Big Daddy with the legalities of running the plantation and giving him a half-dozen grandchildren, Gooper gets no respect. O’Connell takes all of this rejection in and gives us a weaselly lawyer who tries to balance his inferiority complex with his narcissistic desires to be a big shot.
As Gooper’s conniving wife Mae, Emilie Yount is perfection. Yount’s character is greedy, self-serving, and insulting. She can’t stand Maggie and Brick – because they are the favorites. In fact, she can’t wait for Big Daddy to die already so she and her husband can take over and finally be important. For all intents and purposes, she is an adult version of Nellie Oleson from Little House on the Prairie.
Rounding out the cast are Ross Childs as Reverend Tooker and Jeff Broitman as Dr. Baugh – members of the family’s social circle who are on hand to help break the news to Big Mama that her husband is dying. Childs, in particular, has some really great comedic moments.
The production staff for MadKap’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof includes Alyssa Frewan (assistant director), Joe Johnson (scene design), Pat Henderson (lighting design), Beth Laske-Miller (costume design), Kevin Jay Mell (sound design), Eve Flederman (stage manager/properties), Laura DeCroocq (properties), Michael Woods (fight choreographer), Scott Richardson (master carpenter), Maddy Shilts (master electrician/house management)), Deric Gochenauer (graphic design), and Kay Rollinson (social media director).
On press night, there was a prop malfunction in Act Three that could have derailed the full production. However, the entire cast banded together to riff off each other and keep the play going – practically seamlessly. Most in the audience probably had no idea of the complication, a true testament to great acting by a very strong cast.
Performing the works of Tennessee Williams is similar to performing the classics of William Shakespeare. There is a certain cadence that is required to make Tennessee Williams scripts come to life. This requires a strict adherence to presenting the dialogue exactly as written.
During his lifetime, the playwright revisited Cat on a Hot Tin Roof many times – rewriting dialogue in pursuit of perfection. As such, multiple versions of the script exist. The playbill doesn’t indicate which version of the script is being used for the current MadKap mounting, but it seems to be one of the later adaptations that include more shocking dialogue in place of the inuendo spotlighted in the original version.
The Skokie Theatre is a beautiful, intimate performance space located at 7924 Lincoln Avenue in downtown Skokie, IL. There is not a bad view in the 140-seat, state-of-the-art theater. It is the perfect venue to enjoy an excellent staging of a Tennessee Williams classic. I encourage you to attend.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof plays Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2 PM through November 20. There is also a special 1:30 PM matinee on Wednesday, November 16. For ticket information visit: www.SkokieTheatre.org or call the box office at (847) 677-7761.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
If you appreciate the nature of my words here, I ask that you take just a moment to share this article with your social media of choice. Follow me on Facebook (/rikki.travolta) and Twitter (@RikkiLeeTV)
This year, I had the great pleasure of appearing in the hilarious Paul Rudnick comedy I Hate Hamlet for Elgin Theatre Company in the greater Chicago area. To our great honor, I Hate Hamlet has been nominated for seven prizes in the 2022 Broadway World Chicago Theatre Awards:
- Best Direction of a Play – Regina Belt-Daniels
- Best Ensemble Performance
- Best Play
- Best Performer in a Play – Rikki Lee Travolta
- Best Supporting Performer in a Play – David Gasior
- Best Supporting Performer in a Play – Trace Gamache
- Best Supporting Performer in a Play – Travis Greuel
If you want to voice your support for the Elgin Theatre Company production of I Hate Hamlet, you can cast your vote at: https://www.broadwayworld.com/chicago/voteregion.cfm
Thanks for the history of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF as well as your insightful review…
Thank you for enjoying it!