Fresh off its 50th anniversary, Cat underlines its symbolic beds and crutches repeatedly, fearful that we might not catch its point. Which would be tedious -- except that the smell of mendacity still hovers, fouling our lives. Williams took on capital-letter Life and Death in this drama, his finest achievement, and director Jessica McLaughlin's cast at Spokane Civic Theatre (through March 11) responds with a very good production indeed.
While the major roles are all played well, the big star here is McLaughlin's direction. She adds interpretations that reinforce meaning throughout. When repressed, alcoholic Brick (Damon C. Mentzer) first hears that his Big Daddy is dying, he hides his head under a towel -- an ostrich in denial, at a moment when even whiskey doesn't offer relief. Twice, Brick's pillow is gently emphasized -- very much in keeping with Williams' use of symbols. Maggie the Cat (Chasity Kohlman) relates the story of her impoverished childhood -- she had hardly anything to wear -- even as she puts on a flouncy scarlet dress, transforming herself into the desperate seductress she needs to be.
After the long and private conversation of Act One, McLaughlin starts both the second and third acts with well-managed explosions of activity. She elicits emotional impact from the way both Kohlman and, later, Lauren Bathurst as Big Daddy slowly, tenderly try to touch Brick's shoulder. McLaughlin employs Elia Kazan's trick of presentational soliloquies, with Maggie and Big Daddy especially often delivering speeches to the audience, directing their accusations right at us.
McLaughlin makes some missteps -- the father-son confrontation in Act Two drags, and she sometimes allows Caryn Hoaglund's sister-in-law to overemphasize her false pleasantries. But McLaughlin generally coordinates everything from Peter Hardie's set (Mississippi Delta elegance) to his lighting design (dust specks caught in shafts of light) to the antics of Gooper and Mae's no-neck monsters.
Despite relatives who resent her and a husband who's disgusted by her, Maggie struggles on. Especially in Act One, Kohlman revealed how much of Maggie's rage to survive depends on her ability to play-act. She introduces and mocks the other characters for Brick's benefit, hinting at the ability for improvisation needed by any cat with overheated paws. Kohlman physicalizes the role well, joining her hands in a pleading gesture, arching her eyebrows in derision, writhing seductively from across the room -- anything to get Brick's cooperation in her survival plan. She's less effective, however, when Maggie is at her most angry and desperate. Exchanges about Brick's "godlike" status and the whole tragic story of Brick's repressed passion for another man veered too close to melodrama. But those were relatively small weaknesses in a Kohlman's lively characterization of Maggie.
Bathurst's rendition of the plantation patriarch does the reverse: less convincing in storytelling mode, but powerful in the father's desperate outreach to his son. Both Brick and Big Daddy have become so cynical and disillusioned that they laugh at the notion that their wives might actually love them. ("Wouldn't it be funny if that was true?" they both ask, though McLaughlin, using Williams' most optimistic conclusion, cuts Brick's echo of his father's line). Bathurst, a Big Daddy less portly and more upright than most, pushes his son toward the truth and confronts his own mortality with a slight stagger, stoic resignation and a noble exit.
Jean Hardie's Big Mama, both nurturing and nosy, waddles around after her family, using conviviality to mask pain. In loving men who only scoff at her in return, Big Mama forms a nice parallel to Maggie; Hardie finds the role's thankless complexity.
Playing the drunk with a crutch, Mentzer bides his time in breaking out of Brick's alcoholic denial. He can be brutal, capping one of his wife's tirades with "Did you say something to me, Maggie?" And he can be surprising, laughing at others' cruel jokes, contributing outbursts just when you'd forgotten he was still over there on the balcony, nursing his highball. Brick wanted to love Skipper physically and couldn't, doesn't want to love Maggie in that same way and forces himself (in the optimistic script used here) to consider contemplating it anyway. Mentzer makes him brick-like, impervious, just as he should.
Maggie, of course, insists at scraping out the mortar underneath. McLaughlin's production at the Civic emphasizes how Big Daddy, working separately, joins her in the project. Piercing through denial, discarding our self-deceptions, destroying mendacity -- Williams' project in Cat should become our own.