Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Guthrie

Steamy heat and secrets: Peter Christian Hansen and Emily Swallow
Michael Brosilow

The setting of Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof may be a palatial bedroom, but those four walls trap a lot of steamy heat and secrets that crush the characters over one long, hot night.

It's a production that takes its own sweet time getting started, but it opens the throttle at the start of a long, thrilling second act and rides high until the end. This combustible back half—complete with offstage fireworks and a thunderstorm—makes all the setup in the first act worth the wait.

The production, directed by Lisa Peterson, starts with a lengthy scene that mainly has the famed Maggie the Cat talking and ex-football star Brick drinking (he does this a lot, downing what seems to be several bottles of whiskey during the show). At first, Emily Swallow seems to be basing her character on a thick Southern accent and little else, which makes these early moments drag. We do start to get clues about what drives her, but there seems to be little spark left between her and Brick, played by Peter Christian Hansen (he had the same role several years ago in Torch's production). Brick is an enigma for most of Act One, steadily drinking himself into a stupor that barely hides his rage and confusion.

They have a lot to discuss, though they mainly talk around the core issues at first. Maggie grew up poor, and now that she's married into a rich plantation family, she doesn't want to see her disinterested husband lose his part of the family fortune. Brick, however, is deep into his own personal misery. His best friend, and possible lover, Skipper, has recently committed suicide, leaving our character adrift. He's quit his job as a TV announcer and jumped right into the bottle, which meant he couldn't jump high enough the previous night when he decided to take a stumbling run at the high hurdles at his old high school, and he broke his ankle.

So as Brick hobbles around the bedroom and the walkways just outside, the action comes to him. The family scion has been given a clean bill of health, but that's just another lie in a play packed with them. He's dying of terminal cancer. The other son, Gooper, and his shrill wife, Mae, hang over the proceedings like smiling vultures, ready to take control from the favored son once Big Daddy is gone. Mother Big Mama is temporarily cheered by the false news of Big Daddy's clean bill of health, focusing instead on Brick and Maggie's rocky relationship.

The first act provides not just the context for later actions but also some fireworks of its own, especially with Maggie and Brick's confrontation about his drinking and Skipper. Here a lot of it feels like table setting for what's to come.

What does come after the intermission makes the first act feel like a long prologue. Much of the real action comes from a brutally honest conversation between Brick and Big Daddy, brought to full, fiery life by David Anthony Brinkley. Big Daddy is a hardworking redneck who has risen to be a millionaire. A nice white suit and servants haven't changed the man inside, whose harsh exterior covers a pretty harsh interior, but one that values honesty above all.

Brinkley dives headfirst into this, like a bull in a china shop, but he crafts a deep and complex character along the way. Big Daddy may keep everything at the surface, but there's a lot there, especially in his relationship with Brick. In turn, Hansen begins to uncover the tensions that make Brick tick, and that helps the later scenes when Maggie returns to the fold, lies to save face, and finally tries to reconnect with her husband and reforge their relationship.

The company is made up of strong performers from top to bottom, with Melissa Hart doing terrific work as Big Mama, from her bouncy and direct talk with Maggie and Brick to her rage at the lies everyone has told her through the play's long night. Hart is a perfect match for Brinkley, and the two are convincing as a couple who have spent decades together.

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