Somebody should write a dissertation on Rebecca Mozo’s facial expressions in Antaeus Theatre Company’s revival of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Her left eyebrow demands a chapter all its own: Its slightest quirk can reset the temperature from sultry to glacial.
As Maggie Pollitt, who calls herself Maggie the Cat — yes, she’s the cat of the title, allegorically enduring the heat — Mozo inherits well-known iconography for the first production in Antaeus’ sleek new home, the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center in Glendale. Maggie spends most of the first act of “Cat” in a white slip — remember Elizabeth Taylor’s in the 1958 film? — desultorily primping for a birthday party while laying out her resentments and desires to her alcoholic husband, Brick (Ross Philips), and, in the process, catching up the audience on an impressive amount of exposition.
Maggie’s father-in-law, Big Daddy (Harry Groener, exuding monumental force of will), has been diagnosed with cancer — although he hasn’t been told yet because it’s his birthday, and also because he’s kind of scary. He hasn’t decided whether, or how, he will divide his plantation (“28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile”) between his two sons. The elder Gooper (Patrick Wenk-Wolff, wonderfully repellent) and his wife, Mae (Jocelyn Towne, gorgeously insincere), believe their five children — soon to be six — give them an edge over Brick and Maggie, who are childless and seem likely to stay that way, judging from the pleas and rebuffs overheard nightly from their bedroom.
Brick doesn’t seem to care who gets the land. He drinks his Echo Springs whiskey like water and jeers at everybody who tries to slow him down — even his doting mother, Big Mama (Dawn Didawick, endearingly aflutter with denial). But Maggie, who grew up poor, wants that land. She knows Big Daddy favors Brick and despises Gooper and Mae and their “no-neck monsters.” (“Their fat little heads sit on their fat little bodies without a bit of connection,” she says.) Maggie is willing to throw everything she has into a desperate bid to secure her future. All Brick has to do is play along. Will he?
To compensate actresses for handling all this back story, Williams, no piker at writing women, lavished them with lush monologues that crackle with wit and personality. Mozo fills the familiar outlines with fresh, quirky life. Her Maggie is as catty as her sobriquet implies, with a piquant way with words; she’s also resentful, vulnerable, in erotic thrall to her disinterested husband, smart, cruel and ferociously loyal. Her standoffs with the conniving Mae snap and flash like teasers for “The Real Housewives of the 1950s Mississippi Delta.”
“Cat,” which was daring for 1955, could be regarded as a noble casualty of evolved attitudes about sexuality. The crisis at its heart is that Brick, the golden boy, might be gay. He and his football teammate, Skipper, were so close that some people wondered about them. That included Maggie, who went slinking between the two men, setting tragedy in motion. The torturous pace of these revelations, and the innuendo in which they are swathed — there is much talk of “mendacity” and its “powerful, obnoxious odor” — can seem over the top now, even silly.
But director Cameron Watson doesn’t allow his “Cat” to ride on the unveiling of a no-longer-shocking secret. Instead, he focuses on the psychological ramifications of Brick’s sexuality for the other characters and how they use it to advance their own agendas. Brick is the only person onstage who seems oblivious to his feelings for Skipper. Big Daddy’s acceptance of the possibility that the two men loved each other is far more interesting than whether or not it’s true.
While inspiring revealing reactions in everybody else onstage, Brick himself remains a cipher, drinking, staring off into space, refusing to answer pointed questions. He just broke his ankle, and every once in a while he tries to smash somebody with a crutch. Philips comes off as a bit too psychologically healthy for the role, but the winsome grin he occasionally flashes goes a long way in explaining why everybody is so obsessed with Brick.
In the Antaeus tradition of partner casting, the company has a different set of actors performing these roles on alternate nights, conceivably just as wonderful as the cast I saw or more so. Watson has a knack for allowing his actors to shine: Mitchell Edmonds, who plays the uncomfortable party guest Reverend Tooker, doesn’t get a lot to say, but when he breaks into an awkward pause in the family melodrama to check his watch and announce, “I think I’d better step away at this point,” he brings down the house.
The furniture on Steven C. Kemp’s off-kilter, deconstructed set moves around from act to act, reflecting the play’s subtle shifts in perspective, an approach that may work better conceptually than in practice; it’s not always easy to tell where the walls are supposed to be. Terri A. Lewis created the lush period costumes, and Jared A. Sayeg designed the lighting, which subtly evokes the hot, stormy weather.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’
Where: Antaeus Theatre Company, Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 E. Broadway, Glendale
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends May 7
Info: (818) 506-1983 or www.antaeus.org
Running time: 3 hours
Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.