Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. By Tennessee Williams. Directed by Anne Somes. Theatre 3. Canberra Repertory Society. Until March 6. Bookings: canberrarep.org.au or 02 62571950.
"This is a play that exposes the startling co-existence of good and evil," Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tennessee Williams said to Elia Kazan, the original director of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Williams is referring to " the shocking duality in the single heart" of members of the wealthy Pollitt family who have gathered at the stately Mississippi homestead to celebrate the birthday of patriarch Big Daddy (Michael Sparks).
Canberra Repertory Society has taken on a mighty challenge in staging this classic drama of a dysfunctional Southern family.
Disturbing truths are concealed in a litany of lies that reveal to an audience the pain and torment of troubled flaws and tensions. Deceit and mendacity are played out inside Cate Clelland's towering and imposing set design. Williams was himself a tortured soul, deeply tormented by his homosexual relationships and seeking solace in alcohol to dull the pain.
Here, he seeks catharsis through the character of Brick (Teig Sadhana), who is Big Daddy and Big Mama's favoured son and married to Maggie (Victoria Tyrrell Dixon), the cat of the play's title. Struggling to gain favour and a large share of Big Daddy's 28,000 acres of the richest soil in the state are younger son Gooper (Ryan Erlandsen) and his wife May (Lainie Hart), mother of their tribe of "no-neck monsters".
Director Anne Somes has assembled an uniformly strong cast to do justice to Williams's complex characters caught in a vortex of personal deception.
In her opening scene's long diatribe to the unresponsive Brick, Dixon convincingly captures the feline guile of Maggie's flirtatious and wilful tenacity, born of a desperate longing for a child. There was some difficulty with Dixon's enunciation of the languid Mississippi drawl that made some of her dialogue difficult to understand.
Sparks's Big Daddy offers a less physically overpowering presence than is often seen. This in no way diminishes the effective portrayal of a wealthy and domineering plantation owner's vulnerable fear of imminent mortality that gives rise to defiant denial and the eventual realisation of his fate.
Liz St. Clair Long's Big Mama, the long-suffering butt of Big Daddy's cruel invective, is every bit the erstwhile Southern belle now desperately struggling to hold her family together. St Clair Long offers a tour de force performance of maternal concern and damaged devotion.
As the devious team of opportunists Hart's May and Erlandsen's Gooper capture the sickly sense of sycophancy. There are also fine cameos from the supporting performances of Saban Lloyd Berrell as the perplexed Reverend Tooker and Rob Drennan as Doctor Baugh.
But for me it is Teig Sadhana's performance as Brick that is most compelling. Sadhana's characterisation recalls the gripping realism of a James Dean or a Marlon Brando.
Brick's sullen, defiant anguish and cry of the heart at his harboured fear of the love for his dead friend Skipper echoes Williams's private torment as he slid towards self-destruction. Sadhana's Brick is up there with any that I have seen on stage or film.
Somes and her cast have captured the essential truth of Williams's play - that the characters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are neither wholly bad nor good.
Like their author they too are human and it is their flawed humanity that evokes our empathy in Canberra Repertory's admirable staging of Williams's revelatory and powerfully written masterpiece.