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LIGHTNING REVIEW: Acting triumphs in 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'

Robert Eli as Brick and J. Kenneth Campbell as Big Daddy are part of a strong cast in 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.' Robert Eli as Brick and J. Kenneth Campbell as Big Daddy are part of a strong cast in 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.'

FLAT ROCK — Excusing my departure from a social gathering Saturday evening, I mentioned that I was headed to "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

"Hmm," sighed a woman experienced in attending theater, her brow furrowed. "That could be good or bad, depending on how it's cast."
Lucky for the fall theater audience, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" at Flat Rock Playhouse was on target in its casting and is on key in its performance.
Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize winning drama is Southern, dark and raw. "Cat" is no "Cats," but everyone knows that and, besides, where else are you gonna go? "Rocky Horror" closed on Halloween and our community theater alternative, "The Glass Menagerie," is another drama by Williams. Pick your poison.
For maybe the fourth night this season, the Lightning's intrepid reviewer dropped into the shabby seats of the old barn and said to himself, I hope I can stay awake through this show. Me of little faith. Like the other shows, "Cat" sunk her claws in me and dragged me into the story whether I wanted to go or not.
Unlike a comedy or a musical, drama relies entirely on the craft of the actors. There is no blockbuster song, dazzling dance number or crisply delivered punch line to save material that becomes a little draggy.
Here's where "Cat" at the Playhouse triumphs. The casting director got it right.The actors, a combination of Playhouse regulars and impressive newcomers, nail it.
The play opens with Maggie, played by Adria Vitlar, delivering what amounts to a 22-minute monologue that sets up what we need to know. Her alcoholic ex-football star husband Brick (Robert Eli) watches her, looks away, pours a drink, fondles a football, pours a drink, utters a laconic response, pours a drink, baits her, pours a drink — it seems like he consumes a gallon of straight bourbon through the course of the play.
Maggie's the cat on the hot tin roof, unable to relax, forced to keep stepping, too stubborn to jump. Brick's father, Big Daddy Pollitt, is dying of cancer, and his pending departure from this worldly veil has family members scheming for the best advantage. All but Brick, who, maddeningly for his wife, his mother and Big Daddy himself, is too drunk, too disabled from guilt and depression over his best friend's death and his wife's one-night affair with the best friend, to care about Big Daddy's $10 million estate and his "28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the Nile."
What do you need to know about the story? Basically what Maggie sets up. Greed and avarice drive the play. The action takes place in 1955, in a bedroom of the family plantation home in the Mississippi Delta. The set by James W. Johnson and lighting by Driscoll Otto draw the audience in to one long night of family conflict and trauma. The director is Marcia Milgrom Dodge, a Tony-nominated director who has worked across the U.S.
Maggie is beautiful and troubled; she's paid the price a thousand times over for her one-night affair with Skipper, Brick's football playing buddy. Yet Maggie is strong. She is less conniving than Brick's brother Gooper (Preston Dyar) and his wife, Mae (Erin Maguire), the fertile shrew who has delivered five "no neck monsters" and is carrying a sixth.
If the first act rides on the engine of Vitlar's Maggie, the rest of the play derives its energy from the terrific performance of J. Kenneth Campbell as Big Daddy. Self-reverential and profane, Big Daddy credits no one but himself for his rise from grit poverty to cotton king. A decorated combat veteran of the Marine Corps, Campbell makes his Flat Rock Playhouse debut 45 years after he began acting in summer stock theater on Long Island, N.Y. Throughout his career, the playbill bio-sketch tells us, Campbell has performed in soap operas, network TV shows, sitcoms, miniseries "and a lot of other industry crap to put his three boys through prep school and college."
It's our good fortune as Playhouse ticketholders to marvel at his mastery of the craft after many years and many roles. Campbell's Big Daddy is proud, bombastic, brutal and ultimately terrified as his 65th birthday celebration deteriorates into the stark realization of his mortality. He's worth the price of the ticket.
The closing scene of Act II featuring Brick and Big Daddy becomes the fulcrum of the conflict, illuminating Brick's relationship with Skipper, his inability to love Maggie and his view of life as a hopeless construct of lies and betrayal.
"Mendacity is the system we live in," he tells Big Daddy. "Liquor is one way out and death is the other."
Barbara Bradshaw, as Big Mama, delivers her usual solid and credible performance. Scott Treadway as the Rev. Tooker and Michael MacCauley as Doc Baugh have small but essential supporting roles and it will come as no surprise to Playhouse regulars that both actors get them just right. Off-stage voice-overs of the "no-neck monsters" are performed by YouTheatre actors Clara Hockenberry, Ben Kealy, Clarke MacDonald, Maleah Moses, Ava Treadway and Lucy Walker.
Acts I and II come in at 90 minutes and, after intermission, Act III races by in a half hour. The audience is on its feet delivering a well-deserved ovation by 10:23 p.m. Darkness comes early now. Sturdy oak trees stage their public death. Chill settles over the land. "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" sounds sultry and summerlike. Yet it leaves the audience with a fix of drama to last a long cold winter, well-acted and memorable.