The Psych Drama Company's three-hour production of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" may be presented as an audio drama, but it has all the grip and emotional range of any-fully staged presentation.
An unrelenting drama about disillusion, heartbreak, and familial jockeying for power and money, the play takes place over the course of a single evening during which the Pollitt family come together to celebrate the 65th birthday of the patriarch, nicknamed Big Daddy (David Lee Vincent). Before the festivities commence, Margaret (Wendy Lippe) — the "cat" of the title, whose paws are burning from sexual frustration and insecurity about her future — lays out the situation during a mostly one-sided conversation with her husband Brick (Eric McGowan), a former pro football player and sports commentator who's in the grip of an alcohol-fueled crisis. Their marriage isn't working, and it's clear to everyone why that is: As Brick's mother (Linda Monchik) indelicately notes, marriage that's on the rocks is one in which rocks aren't being gotten off. The side effect of this is that Brick and Margaret are childless, as compared with the five "no-neck monsters" that Brick's brother Gooper (Mark Prokes) and his wife Mae (Lindsay McAuliffe) have produced. Margaret fears that the lack of offspring, plus Brick's drinking, will cause them to be cut out of Big Daddy's will, and to her it's clear that Gooper and Mae are doing everything they can to ensure this outcome.
Juicy questions arise from the outset, which Williams' script answers only slowly and by tantalizing degrees. Why has Brick turned away from Margaret, and to the bottle? How does Brick's best friend since childhood, Skipper, fit into the situation? Even as the answers slowly emerge, more complications become evident. Big Daddy has recently had a cancer scare, and his refusal to draw up a will is sure to cause friction among the brothers and their wives. Gooper has a law practice and might not really need the money, but he does have a score to settle with his younger brother; Mae is depicted as merely grasping and greedy, while Margaret lives in terror if being plunged back into the poverty in which she grew up.
Brick, for his part, seems to care as little about an inheritance as he desires his wife, which presents Big Daddy with a puzzle the old man is keen to crack. The play's middle act is a tour de force between Brick and Big Daddy, in which father and son hash out their tensions during a discussion... more like an argument... that touches on Williams themes like same-sex love, homophobia, and erotic yearnings in later life, as well as filial connection and the personal costs of hard-driven success.
Williams' sensibilities infuse the script on every page, and the cast evoke a sense of time, place, and culture that relies partially on their Southern accents (which can be somewhat variable), but also on their interpretations. Linda Monchik inhabits the clan's mother, Big Mama, as someone for whom the role as wife and mother is the beginning and end of her identity; she's always sweet and often anguished, but just let her see a threat to her beloved son and she's ready to take on any and all comers. David Lee Vincent plays Big Daddy with a gruff combination of vulgarity and wit that sometimes calls Stacy Keach to mind. Erik McGowan sounds like he's delivering Brick's lines through his teeth — an apt choice for a character who's so strong, taciturn, and hurting. In the entire play, but especially in Acts I and II, his character emerges from the way he responds to the provocations of Margaret and Big Daddy. He's a surprisingly well-defined persona, given his essential passivity and unwillingness to engage; eventually, we see him as a man who's wrapped around a multi-faceted grief he's ill-equipped to process.
Mark Prokes' Gooper hasn't got as much to work with, or as many sterling lines, as most of the other characters, but Prokes finds and calibrates Gooper's rage and tendency toward connivance. McAuliffe, meantime, squares up nicely against Lippe; the former is venomous under her too-sweet decorum, while the latter is driven by desperation... and maybe (just maybe!) genuine love for her husband.
Williams enthusiasts might note that the text used here departs in small but significant ways from William's script (substituting the more appropriately hard-edged "fucking" for Williams' more euphemistic "ruttin") and using a well-integrated blend of both the original version of Act III and the revised Act III that Williams later wrote at the urging of Elia Kazan, who directed the play on Broadway. Kudos: The adaptation works better than either version on its own.
Larry Segel ably directs and provides narration (essentially, reading out edited versions of the play's stage directions). Almost as crucial is the sound design by Adam Elliott Rush (who also plays two small roles, Rev. Tooker and Doctor Baugh). Rush also provides the production's original score, which is always effective and sometimes surprisingly sprightly. It's fitting: Under the jockeying, fear, heartache, and rivalry, the play has much to say about life and how to live it. Three hours of audio drama could easily have been a slog and a bore; instead, this production is an affirming, affecting experience that invigorates.
Kilian Melloy, EDGE Media Network
The Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor, National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, and The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association.