The Roof Is On Fire

Tennessee Williams's directions on burning down the house

Tennessee Williams tried to make producing and performing his plays as easy as possible for all concerned. Or maybe he just wanted to make sure they went exactly as he imagined them. At any rate, he was never one to skimp on stage directions, as the script of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof demonstrates in no uncertain terms. Rarely does a line of dialogue go by without at least some small piece of instruction regarding mood or movement (a "dreamily" here, an "abruptly" there, everybody turning and falling and throwing things). In some instances, he provides a paragraph of direction for a six-word sentence. It's almost as though Williams were trying to make himself dramaturge and director by proxy.

Fifty Foot Penguin Theater's fealty to the maestro's vision is what lends the company's production much of its ample power. Director Zach Curtis and Co. follow Williams's copious stage directions to the letter--not an easy feat, for this very physical play is as precisely choreographed as Swan Lake.

That attention makes sense given the intensity of the story, which revolves around the dying "Big Daddy" (Bob Malos), and his two potential heirs: the alcoholic ex-football player Brick (Steve Swere) and the scheming corporate lawyer (Brian Columbus, whose Trent Lott hairdo is a fab touch). At the center of it all, of course, is the play's titular Cat--Brick's wife Margaret (Stacia Rice). In telling their story, Williams packs a lot of action into what seems like a relatively brief period.

Cat power: Stacia Rice in Fifty Foot Penguin's 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'
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Cat power: Stacia Rice in Fifty Foot Penguin's 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'

Apart from condom-tight production, near-impeccable acting (minus the "near" in the case of Rice), and the aforementioned exactitude, this highly successful production closely hews to Williams's "Notes for the Designer." The playwright had a specific look in mind for the set, a bedroom in an old mansion. Among other things he suggested that the "walls below the ceiling dissolve into air," and that the set be roofed by "the sky, stars, and moon." He also asked that lighting become progressively more muted and that the "console"--a monumental combination hi-fi, TV, and bar--occupy a central place in the room, "between the double doors."

But it's a long way from Cedar Riverside to Broadway, where Cat (which earned Williams his second Pulitzer) opened in 1955. The cost of the console alone, if rendered to Williams's extravagant specs, might easily exceed the amount of Fifty Foot Penguin's budget for the season. And the only way to create his walls and ceiling affordably would be to do the play outside, which would result in an altogether different set of problems, especially now.

Instead of patronizing loan sharks or freezing to death, the company drags the play into the 21st century and adapts it to the People's Center theater's modest environs. Lights are bright for the duration, onstage and in the house. And designer John Gavin Dwyer moves the double doors to the theater's entrance at the end of the center aisle, thereby eliminating the "fourth wall," the invisible barrier that separates actors from audience, and making the aisle part of the stage. And the mighty console (here a simple black structure), is pushed to one side and far upstage, so that Brick practically pours his drinks in the front row. Once you get over the initial "hey, the show has started and the lights aren't dimming" shock, the sum effect of all these changes is to suck you into the play.

They also help to direct your attention to the centrally located bed, which becomes the play's axis mundi. And well it should: Sex and sexuality--realized and repressed--provide the show's dramatic backbone. It was brave of Williams to set it in a bedroom in the first place, given the tenor of the times. But Williams had a far more courageous mission still. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof marked the first time the playwright dealt openly with the subject of homosexuality, an important step for an artist who limited his personal time in the closet to however long it took to deal with wardrobe matters.

 
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