Triad Stage lays bare the lies of wealth and fortune

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DeCicco and Ball play Maggie and Brick, caught in the complexity of their failing marriage. (Bert VanderVeen)

by Chris Nafekh

The second act of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof bleeds irony. Big Daddy, patriarch of the Pollitt family, revels in the news that he isn’t dying of cancer, a lie his children fed him. With a renewed lust for life, Big Daddy heckles his son Brick about the previous night when his son sprained his ankle, suggesting Brick did so while having sex with a woman. The notion that his son might be gay eludes him.

The question of Brick’s sexuality is one that Tennessee Williams, renowned playwright and author of this 1955 onstage classic, never answered. Williams wrote a collection of plays, each relating to some grim aspect of the human condition. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof dramatizes the breakdown of a white Southern family a century after abolition; the death and decay of wealthy tradition breeds hatred and dismantles close relationships.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened on Aug. 29 as Triad Stage’s first production of its 15th season. The theater and its crew have a longstanding tradition of performing works by Tennessee Williams; Suddenly Last Summer marked Triad Stage’s first ever production in 2002. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof sets the count at six plays by the author.

On Big Daddy’s birthday, his children gather around him to celebrate and suck up in hopes of earning his inheritance. Envy, greed and mendacity tear apart Brick and his brother Gooper, played by Patrick Ball and Michael Keyloun respectively, whose wives constantly scratch at one another with hateful words and petty slights.

Brick remains apathetic for most of the play, sipping booze to calm his nerves. At the beginning of the first scene he exits the shower, a glass of bourbon in hand. His wife Maggie takes the cup as she begins her monologue, which takes up most of the first act in a revealing, nonstop narrative of the issues at hand. Brick walks to the bar to pour himself another.

Broadway actress Christina DeCicco plays Maggie and captures her character’s elusive motive. That is to say, it’s hard to tell whether Maggie is committed more to her husband or her portion of Big Daddy’s will. John O’Creagh, who has acted on both stage and screen, speaks the patriarch’s lines with an accent as thick as a mouthful of tobacco. Moreover, Big Daddy represents an uneducated yet successful class of men, a role O’Creagh plays masterfully. A believable father figure, he performs with harsh, forbearing compassion.

Director Preston Lane is more than passingly familiar with the Williams canon. The celebrated playwright’s appeal, according to Lane, comes from an ability to balance pessimism with beautiful language. Despite ongoing invidiousness, the Pollitt’s manage to connect on some level — Big Daddy’s relationship with Brick epitomizes that balance.

“I think he’s a victim of his own self-loathing,” Lane said, referring to Brick. “What he’s self-loathing, I’ll leave it for the audience to figure out.”

Throughout the play, Brick’s temper boils slowly like hot soup. As the play stirs up a rumor mill within the family, tosses in lies and adds the death of a beloved, Brick’s alcoholism builds with the action.

Watching the Pollitt family interact is like watching animals in a cage. Set designer Josaphath Reynoso wanted it that way.

From the base of the floor-level stage, windowpanes stretch two stories high and create the border of the box-like set, entrapping a king-sized bed lined with gold sheets, lavish furniture and the Pollitt family standing inside. Besides the Victorian décor and cast, the stage looked as hollow as the words Maggie spoke to her husband.

Despite any love the Pollitt family might hold for one another, backhanded insults and greedy motives keep the family from sympathizing with each other’s pain. The finale exposes them in a grand, dramatic gesture as they battle for inheritance. Big Daddy’s cancer begins to set in and he screams in the background as Brick, Maggie, Gooper and his wife Mae throw selfish accusations back and forth. From the outside looking in, Big Daddy could be screaming from the pain of cancer or the mendacity tearing apart his family.

Triad Stage is located at 232 S. Elm Street (GSO) and is showing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof until Sept. 20. For more info, visit triadstage.org.