Each summer, San Francisco streets are crowded by tourists armed with traveler’s checks and cameras. They come in droves, hailing from locations across the globe with their friends and families in tow. I was surprised then, that just a little over a month ago while sitting on a San Francisco bus, I overheard an English couple discussing what they called America’s fundamental lack of culture; their conversation breaking only to snap photos of the city through the dirty windows of the bus. I wondered why, if America has no culture, no flavor, why they had come and what they were taking pictures of.
Granted, in the grand scheme of things, America is a young nation composed of a multiplicity of peoples and landscapes, giving us our own unique and vibrant culture. But of all of the artists, musicians and literary figures this country has produced, perhaps none has captured and preserved a distinct American Culture like playwright Tennessee Williams.
Currently, the Cornell Department of Theatre, Film, and Dance is producing one of Williams’ most compelling scripts, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
The current production is very different from the acclaimed 1958 film and even various other stage productions, as Director David Feldshuh is quick to point out. The script for this particular show is a synthesis of Williams’ earlier version of the play and latter editions which were edited for content due to the show’s use of profanity and its somewhat controversial subject matter.
Feldshuh explains, “Williams wrote various versions, but he championed the original his entire life … there are elements of the primary script [in this production], but there are some differences. The original’s got more bite.”
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a complicated story riddled with familial rivalries, extreme sexual tensions, economic conflict and man’s seemingly inescapable will to survive despite his inevitable mortality. It’s no wonder, then, that when Williams’ original script hit the stage in 1955, it was met with equal shares of praise and skepticism.
This is the story of a large and prosperous Southern family. Brick and his wife Maggie, played by Jeff Blagg ’02 and Jess Heley ’02, respectively, are a married couple living on the family plantation. Their apparent inability or unwillingness to conceive a child is the subject of much gossip and speculation among the other family members. Brick has fallen into an alcoholic depression following the death of his best friend, Skipper, an event that is cast in an obscure light throughout much of the show.
The role of Brick’s father, Big Daddy, is played by Brian Russell. The entire action of the play takes place over the course of a single evening, the night of Big Daddy’s 65th birthday. However, the celebration is short lived as Big Daddy and Brick attempt to have an “honest” conversation.
The following scenes are ripe with conflict and emotion. The play deals with the troubling results of dishonesty, even when presented with good intentions. The play deals with greed. The play deals with sexuality and social standards. The play deals with death and the fear of death. In short, the play is not merely a representation of any one theme, but a thought-provoking examination of a variety of conflicts. As in life, the play’s predicaments are not black and white, not as clear-cut as we might like. The various tensions and strains are multi-faceted, complex.
The first thing you’re bound to notice as you enter the Kiplinger Theater (located in the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts) is the show’s set, designed by Andrew Mansfield. In combination with E.D. Intemann’s lighting scheme, the stage is transformed into a Mississippi plantation home.
Prior to the opening of the show, pale light falls in bands across a wooden floor, painting the various furniture items in rich yellows, light blues and soft whites. The main acting space is bordered by three large neoclassical columns, and a single wall that houses a door located upstage, marking the set’s rear border. The result is a feeling of suspension, as if the audience has broken through the theatrical convention of the “fourth wall” from a multitude of directions — as if we’re seeing the action of the play from several perspectives at once.
There’s nothing quite as spectacular as leaving an art exhibition, putting down a poem, finishing a novel, or exiting a theatre and feeling changed as a result of what you’ve experienced. This is the kind of rare production that one would expect to find in an international city at some acclaimed playhouse. To put it plainly, this show is a gem, as engaging as it is entertaining.
And as for an American culture, well, there should be no question; it’s on display right now thanks to Director Feldshuh, his talented cast and diligent crew.
Archived article by Nate Brown