OSF play is the Cat's meow

It's the Mississippi Delta in 1955, a changing world. We are on a 28,000-acre cotton plantation, the "richest land this side of the valley Nile," owned by Big Daddy Pollitt. Big Daddy has two sons, the dutiful one and the wastrel. And Big Daddy is dying of cancer.

Director Christopher Liam Moore, an award-winning actor, director and playwright, has crafted Tennessee Williams' 1974 version of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," which opened Saturday at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, into an absolutely mesmerizing evening as we watch the disintegration of Big Daddy's 65th birthday celebration and, simultaneously, the Pollitt family.

As well we know, the "cat" is Maggie. Wife to the drunken younger son Brick, Maggie is fighting and clawing for a piece of that plantation and for her marriage. Maggie (played by the gorgeous Stephanie Beatriz) is sensuous, acerbic, acutely observant and desperately manipulative. Born poor to fading Southern gentility, Maggie has vowed to never be poor or disrespected ever again.

The play's title describes more than Maggie, however. Every one of the characters is that cat, profoundly uncomfortable, agitated and frightened to make the definitive move.

Brick (Danforth Comins), a former star athlete and a fading sports announcer, has retreated to the bottle, desperate each day to get to the point where the "click" happens in his head and he is at peace. With booze, Brick is no longer tortured by an ambiguous friendship with his college buddy Skipper. With booze, Brick is no longer battered by the importuning of his discarded wife. Brick is beyond keeping up a façade but something, emotional or financial, has brought him back for Big Daddy's final birthday.

Big Daddy (Michael Winters) has done his own clawing and fighting. Born poor, he worked his way up from field hand to overseer to part-owner and then full owner of this plantation. Brutally honest, disgusted with the mendacity of the daily compromises of living, Big Daddy likes being rich, demands obedience and is terrified of dying. Even though he has been feeling poorly these last few years and the pain in his gut keeps getting worse, Big Daddy grasps at the latest diagnosis that he merely suffers from a spastic colon.

The elder son, Gooper (Rex Young), has arrived with his wife, Mae (Kate Mulligan), a faded Southern belle with a Mamie Eisenhower hairstyle and a snotty attitude. Gooper is a prosperous corporate attorney in Memphis. He and Mae have produced five children with a sixth on the way. Gooper and Mae have swallowed Big Daddy's disdain and arrogance for years, convinced that they are the only "proper" ones to inherit the fortune.

And there is Big Mama (Catherine E. Coulson), who has put up with 40 years of abuse and contempt from Big Daddy because that is what wives are supposed to do. She even still loves him. Despite her appearance as raucous, fluttery and inconsequential, Big Mama is a magnolia with a core of steel and the observation powers of a surveillance camera.

And so the games begin.

As the play opens, Comins' deliberate detachment is the perfect foil for Beatriz' self-conscious, non-stop nattering, which prepares us for the raw honesty of the explosive second act, a confrontation between the expansive, pontificating Big Daddy and his sullen, tightly wound son. Young, Mulligan and Coulson get their star turns in Act III, which crackles like a summer storm bearing down on the plantation.

Moore, working with scenic designer Christopher Acebo, has created a fluid set of concentric circles of gauzy curtains for Brick and Maggie's bedroom, where the play's action takes place. There are no truly private rooms in this mansion with its galleries, verandas and unlocked doors. Conversations are overheard and interrupted, intentionally or not. Children — Gooper and Mae's "no-neck monsters" — constantly barge through. Moore has emphasized this by having other characters hang out between the concentric circles as the action unfolds in the center of his stage.

The costumes by Alex Jaeger recreate the mid-'50s perfectly. The sound design by Andre J. Pluess and the lighting design by Christopher Akerlind are subtle but effective.

At the end of the evening, we may quibble with the playwright's ambiguous but vaguely hopeful resolution of the play, but its undeniable power is there and Moore and his masterful cast have captured it. "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is an evening of theater you won't soon forget.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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