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REVIEW: Playhouse's 'Cat' Bares Its Claws in Pent Fury

Classic Tennessee Williams drama of a family spiraling out of control comes to life explosively in Village Playhouse production, continuing its run this weekend.

 

By Bob Helbig for Wauwatosa Patch

Anger takes many forms in the Village Playhouse of Wauwatosa production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

This version is easy on the Southern hospitality and light on humor. We see rage. Hurt. Disappointment. Betrayal. It’s a toxic mix destroying a family whose patriarch, Big Daddy, is dying of cancer. He’s unaware that death is coming. Everyone else knows, and their reaction to this knowledge reveals their characters.

The cast explores all of the antagonism woven into the Tennessee Williams script. Next weekend, this furious “Cat” completes its run at Christ King School, 2806 N. Swan Blvd. in Wauwatosa, with three shows: at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

The protagonist is Big Daddy’s favorite son, Brick, played with a smoldering fury by Tommy Dallace, who prowls the stage like a caged animal throughout the nearly three-hour show.

Brick is hobbled by a foot injury suffered a night earlier during a drunken run of the hurdles at the track of his former high school. The damage suffered by the washed-up athlete makes him a prisoner in his father’s plantation home, where Brick is forced in a bedroom to interact with his family members. His wounds are deeper than they appear.

Dallace’s uncredited co-stars are his crutch and the alcohol that his character consumes during the three-act drama. Brick nurses each drink with a tenderness that is not shared with anyone in his family, least of all his wife. We see the tension and disgust of their marriage gone sour.

The disintegration of that relationship is the focus of the first act, a mesmerizing pairing of Dallace and Angela Bolmes, who plays Maggie the Cat. Bolmes delivers with equal parts sexiness, charm and desperation. Maggie’s beauty and Southern charm flicker as she pines for her husband and the chance to lift herself from poverty by claiming inheritance from Brick’s dying father.

As the first act unfolds, the petite, fiery Bolmes shows an unrelenting earnestness in her portrayal of a woman determined to keep her marriage alive. Dallace, a hulking man with big-screen good looks, responds to her with irritation and indifference. His measured weariness resonates even in the play’s quietest moments.

The hurt that fills the room has a counterbalance. Brick’s mother, Big Mama, offers a conceited cheeriness that is the only source of optimism for a family circling the drain. Honore Dugan Schiro lights up the stage as Big Mama. Schiro’s occasional giddiness adds levity, but she also channels moments of pain, embarrassment and shame for what’s happening to her family. She is elated, berated and deflated. In her face and in her voice, Schiro is a master of subtle expression as she navigates the range of emotion.

Rage continues in the second act with a faceoff between Brick and Big Daddy. While Brick’s anger is smoldering, Big Daddy’s is a five-alarm fire. Michael Pocaro, who also directs the show, is white hot as his character vents contempt for his kin, whom he accuses of trying to usurp his authority. He adds a dimension of arrogance that he uses to dominate Dallace’s Brick; although Pocaro is physically smaller as Big Daddy, he makes his character the biggest man in the room.

Brick’s superficial respect for Big Daddy during this “talking jag” gives way to meaningful conversation and deeper truths. Big Daddy is scared of dying. But death is unavoidable.

Exploring the issue of Brick’s sexuality is a telling choice in any “Cat” production, and this one does so delicately. In the pained conversation with this father, Brick’s anguish escalates while recounting the death of his friend Skipper. This much is certain: the loss of this “true friendship” has left a void that Brick fills with self-destruction.

In the third act, less-favored son Gooper (Philip Birdener) and his wife, Mae (Magdelyn Monahan), add to the tension while scheming for Big Daddy’s estate, “28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the Valley Nile.” As they vie for the attention of Big Mama and Big Daddy, Gooper and Mae are buzzing mosquitoes on this sweltering summer night.

Ultimately, the dances of enmity between Brick and Maggie, then Brick and Big Daddy, reveal the sources of their anger. And that’s what this show is about: each character confronting that anger, and then finding the will to do something about it.

As Maggie says early on, “Not facing a fire don’t put it out.”

Bob Helbig worked for more than 20 years as a reporter and editor at The Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. His 11-year-old daughter, Mia, plays Gooper and Mae’s child Dixie in this production.

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