Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams. Canberra Repertory Theatre directed by Walter Learning. Theatre 3April 27-May 19, 2001.
"This is my soft birthday. Not my gold birthday, nor my silver birthday, but my soft birthday..." says Big Daddy, knowing, but not knowing, that cancer is undermining his 65 year old body. Phil Mackenzie created a softer more empathetic character than is usual in this now classic 1955 play. The theme, against mendacity and for facing the difficult truth - the only way human understanding and tolerance can grow - became clear in this production.
Learning's direction was tight, in an excellent set by Russell Brown, including Big Mama's crass iconographic purchases from her trip to Europe. Lighting was unobtrusive and therefore effective. So all the makings of a good production were there.
However this was not gold or silver, not as hot as the Memphis cat that Tennessee Williams wrote: a workmanlike production, finally, because the cast, though a good selection, could not involve us in the full complexity of these characters' illusions. Mackenzie and Duncan Ley (the drunkard son Brick) showed their strength, lifting Act 2 through their long duet; Janie Lawson as the Cat (Maggie) got the story through, but never the depth of desperation driving her character's sexuality - and so the first Act took too long to get moving - but there were effective moments of reflection, when we could really wonder if Maggie understood how self-destructive was her need to reclaim Brick's attention.
Other characters were neatly cut out, and therefore a bit cardboardy, though Ian Croker (Brick's lawyer brother Gooper) and Jenny Ongley-Houston (his avaricious wife Mae) showed some spark in vicious lines from the side of the mouth in Act 3. Big Mama (Anne Joyce) I found disappointing - the right elements of feeling were there, but not elemental enough. And the "no-neck" children were awful, exactly as they should have been. "Happy Birthday Big Daddy - we love you" was excellent.
Rep is aiming high this season. Though we can't expect the standards of fully professional trained actors, it is good to revisit classic Tennessee Williams even in a softer focus. Mendacity and avarice, after all, are still with us.
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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