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Friday, May 12, 2017

Hey, Mom! Talking to My Mother #675 - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Ashlyn Shawver (left) and Joe Dely (Right)
in What A Do Theatre's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, May 2017
Hey, Mom! Talking to My Mother #675 - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Hi Mom,

Sort of a new feature here. A review, but one without a link to the Battle Creek Enquirer as this one is being published by the newspaper. I am publishing this review here with the generous support of What A Do Theatre.

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”
a production of What A Do Theatre
Attended Date: May 11, 2017
reviewed by Christopher Tower

“Do not go gentle into that good night...rage, rage against the dying of the light,” wrote Welsh poet Dylan Thomas [1] to his dying father. Tennessee Williams excerpted and added lines from the poem in the 1974 edition of his classic play Cat on A Hot Tin Roof, his personal favorite. The What A Do Theatre (WAD) of Springfield, Michigan does not go gentle into that good night either with this scintillating production of a classic of the American Theatre, for which Williams won a Pulitzer Prize (his second) in 1955.

Joe Dely (left) and Dave Stubbs (right)
in What A Do Theatre's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, May 2017
Dealing with themes of facing death, Big Daddy, the dying patriarch of the great Pollitt family – who presides over its Mississippi Delta estate – chooses to climb to the roof of his manse and survey the “28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the valley” upon learning he’s dying of cancer. Williams added a footnote to this final action and the play itself “which says only one affirmative thing about 'Man's Fate': ‘that he has it still in his power not to squeal like a pig but to keep a tight mouth about it’”[2].

On the day Big Daddy and his family learn his cancer is in its final stages of malignancy, fireworks explode over the Mississippi plantation in celebration of his 65th birthday amid a sky full of stars. Likewise, star performers explode all over the stage in this taut, urgent, breath-taking production closing the Springfield theatre’s 2017 season. Stars explode because the professional theatrical company has assembled most of its best company members for what will surely rank among the top of five shows in its eight year history.

Chief among these professionals is Ashlyn Nicole Shawver –  who has chased her star to Los Angeles and Houston in pursuit of her career – and has returned here for the first time since 2013 for the role of Maggie the Cat, played by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1958 Richard Brooks film co-starring Paul Newman.

Though the film was immensely popular and well known, Williams was disappointed with the way the Hays Code forced it to down-play his themes of homophobia and sexism. The playwright’s revised 1974 edition of the show better targets his intended themes and is the one most often produced in revivals; it’s just as relevant today despite the strides that have been made for gay marriage and against homophobia since the 1950s.

Tennessee Williams has been called the American Shakespeare, and if this is true, it’s a truth made plain by this masterpiece, which unfolds the saga of a southern family in crisis with the epic proportions of King Lear.

The wealthy Pollitt family has gathered for Big Daddy’s (Dave Stubbs) birthday, and an after dinner celebration must take place in an upstairs bedroom shared by Big Daddy’s youngest son Brick (Joe Dely) and his wife Margaret, or Maggie, the cat (Ashlyn Nicole Shawver) because Brick has broken his ankle in a drunken attempt at recaptuing his lost athletic prowess.

Ashlyn Shawver (left) and Joe Dely (Right)
in What A Do Theatre's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, May 2017

Though Maggie’s long first act soliloquy, the first conflict introduced to the audience is the one between Brick and Maggie that has kept them childless while the eldest Pollitt boy, Gooper (Carlen Kernish) and his wife Sister Mama, or Mae (Teri (Christ) Noaeill), have produced four offspring with a fifth on the way, children Maggie finds loathsome and calls “no-neck monsters.”

Brick and Maggie have no children because they have not slept together in a very long time, a situation about which Big Mama (Stacy (Little) Vest) confronts Maggie in the first act: “when a marriage goes on the rocks, the rocks are right here,” she says, patting the bed, and daring Maggie to explain the couple’s inability to start their family.

The problem is the reason Brick is drinking himself into oblivion: his friend Skipper. Both Maggie and Big Daddy confront Brick about Skipper, who died of alcohol poisoning after Brick refused to acknowledge, return, or even discuss Skipper’s feelings of love for the All-American track star and football hero so immersed in his own homophobia that he cannot even begin to figure out his bond with his closest male friend.

Brick’s denial of his relationship with Skipper and his disgust with his wife and his own terrible guilt also colors Big Daddy’s relationship with his own wife (or so he says), and the patriarch tries to help his son move past his emotional turmoil and clean up his act so that he can leave him the plantation. Both characters confront the mendacity of those around them. Big Daddy is being lied to about his health, mostly by his other son and wife who want to inherit the estate, and his wife who he accuses of trying to “take over,” and Brick is lying to himself until he joins Maggie in her final lie – she’s pregnant – which secures Brick’s inheritance, as Big Daddy goes off to die peacefully after initially raging against the dying of his light.

This complex and psychologically-dense narrative is masterfully performed with brilliant direction (Randy Wolfe) and gorgeous sets.

The set designed by Samantha Snow uses scrim walls to emphasize the lack of privacy that all the characters experience in the mansion of open verandas and unlocked doors. Mood lighting and special effects produce fireworks, thunderstorms, and the deep purple night ruled by the all-seeing eye of its full moon. Period-specific jazz and blues music plays between and during scenes creating the sweltering atmosphere of bourbon-soaked, southern high society. All these technical marvels are interwoven by director Randy Wolfe, who may have composed the most perfect top to bottom, large-cast production in WAD’s history, even drawing forth excellent performances from a quartet of shrill and shrieking children who torment Maggie the Cat. Wolfe won a Wilde Award for best show in 2016 for Streetcar Named Desire, and he should win again for this powerful piece of theatre.

Though technically stunning, the performers seal the deal in this soon to be award-winning production.

Ashlyn Nicole Shawver alone is worth the price of admission for her performance as Maggie the Cat. Shawver has already proven her substantial talents to West Michigan audiences with WAD shows like Next To Normal and Sweeney Todd, but she gives a whiskey shot straight to the heart as the sex-starved cat dancing frantically to keep her paws from being burned by the hot tin roof. Shawver has range and depth for the role, and her physical presence rivals that of Elizabeth Taylor, as photo comparisons make plain.

Joe Dely has often proven to be the number one asset of the WAD company, and his performance as Brick shows once again why he is the theatre’s top star. Like a long jazz line of sustained, quiet intensity, Dely rises and falls from crescendo to dénouement flawlessly and with tight erudition.

Cast against the usual type (think plus-plus sized), I was dubious about Dave Stubbs in the role of Big Daddy. And though the actor lacks the usual girth, he makes up for it with stage presence and line delivery. He is brash, loud, and full of spit. He is wild and funny and at times soft and loving, especially to his beloved son. Better than Frost/Nixon or A Few Good Men, this is Stubbs’ finest role to date.

Stacy (Little) Vest always impresses, but in the role of Big Mama she shows just how “little” (heh) we have seen of her immense range. Often actors have the same base qualities in all their roles but not Vest. Here we see her slip into the skin of the matriarch of the plantation in ways that almost make her seem like a different person entirely.

The rest of the cast bite with sharp teeth. The children (Nadalie Pratt, Sofia Casey, Annika Yoder, and Jessica Perez) are delightfully obnoxious. James King II has good moments as Reverend Tooker. Gooper (Carlen Kernish) is slimy, greedy, and only out-matched in ickiness by his cloying, sycophantic, and braying wife Mae (Teri (Christ) Noaeill). After playing Stella in last year’s A Streetcar Named Desire, a character we loved in Noaeill’s capable hands, we see her ability as an actor here in a character we love to hate.

With a lobby decorated as if for a lavish and formal Kentucky Derby gala, What A Do Theatre is decked out to the nines for its production of Cat on A Hot Tin Roof and delivers an inestimable experience for theatre fans and newbies alike with this authentic and evocative rendition of a great literary classic. It is not to be missed and runs through May 21st.

L-R: Teri (Christ) Noaeill, Rachel Markillie, Franklin Chenman, Carlen Kernish, and James King II
in What A Do Theatre's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, May 2017

PERSONAL NOTE: This is the first theatre review I have written that was not for newspaper publication since starting this occupation in 1987 at the Western Herald. I have written and published theatre reviews in the Battle Creek Enquirer since 1993. Given budget cuts, the Enquirer chose not to review this show. I wish to thank the What A Do Theatre for the opportunity to attend and review this show for my albeit small audience. If this is your first time on my blog, please investigate my main feature using the link at the top of the main page to Hey Mom #1. Thank you for reading.


[1] - https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/do-not-go-gentle-good-night

[2] -  Parker, Brian: "Swinging a Cat", published within Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, p. 181. New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2004.

Do not go gentle into that good night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

From The Poems of Dylan Thomas, published by New Directions. Copyright © 1952, 1953 Dylan Thomas. Copyright © 1937, 1945, 1955, 1962, 1966, 1967 the Trustees for the Copyrights of Dylan Thomas. Copyright © 1938, 1939, 1943, 1946, 1971 New Directions Publishing Corp. Used with permission.

Dylan Thomas

Dylan Marlais Thomas, born October 27, 1914, in South Wales, was the archetypal Romantic poet of the popular American imagination—he was flamboyantly theatrical, a heavy drinker, engaged in roaring disputes in public, and read his work aloud with tremendous depth of feeling and a singing Welsh lilt.
Dylan Thomas


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Talk to you tomorrow, Mom.


- Days ago = 677 days ago

- Bloggery committed by chris tower - 1705.12 - 10:10 (my time).

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