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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Middlebury Theater Company Revisits Tennesse Williams Classic

Trent Campbell
Katie Murphy and Charlie Murphy as Cat and Brick

The Middlebury Actor’s Workshop is presenting a classic of the American stage, Tennessee Williams' Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.

I recently went Backstage with their production, which features both professional actors and local talent.

Cat On a Hot Tin Roof tells the story of a Southern family in crisis. The play revolves around a birthday party for patriarch Big Daddy, who has been ill for years, but has been told he has a clean bill of health.

In fact, his family knows he is dying of cancer, and they jockey to inherit the family fortune.

His son Brick has become an alcoholic, perhaps due to his suppressed attraction to a close male friend who has committed suicide. Brick ignores his wife’s Maggie’s attempts to conceive a child, which she believes will guarantee the inheritance from Big Daddy.

In this scene, Maggie tries to get Brick to sign Big Daddy’s birthday card.

(Scene) You just have to scribble a couple of lines on this card. You scribble something, Maggie. Its got to be your handwriting, its your present. I’ve already given him my present, its got to be your handwriting. I didn’t get him a present. Well I got one for you. You write on the card then. And have him know you didn’t remember his birthday? I didn’t remember his birthday. You don’t have to prove you didn’t. Well I don’t want to fool him about it. Just write Love Brick for God’s sake. No! You’ve got to! I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do. You keep forgetting the conditions in which I agreed to keep living with you. I’m not living with you. We occupy the same cage. You’ve got to remember the conditions agreed on. They’re impossible conditions. 

With his perspective blurred by grief and alcohol, Brick doesn’t seem to care if he or his brother Gooper inherit the plantation.

Here, he jokes about the obvious attempts by the family to secure the inheritance, with Big Daddy, who is played by Steve Small of Shoreham.

(Scene) Well, its funny. What’s funny? How you and Gooper despite being so different, would pick more or less the same type of woman. We married into society, Big Daddy.  Yeah, well they both have that same anxious look. Well, they’re sitting in the middle of a pretty big piece of land. 28,000 acres is a pretty big piece of land, and so they’re squaring off over it.. Each determined to knock off a bigger piece than  the other whenever you let it go. I got a surprise for them…I’m not gonna let it go for a long time, if that’s what they’re waitin’ on. That’s right, Big Daddy. You just sit tight and let them scratch each other’s eyes out. Yeah you bet your life. I’ll just sit tight and let ‘em scratch each other’s eyes out

Members of the Middlebury production agree that Tennessee Williams masterfully tied together themes of loneliness and the secrets family members keep from each other.

Director Melissa Lourie says that while much has been made of Brick’s latent homosexuality, she believes that it’s only a small ingredient in the play’s complicated themes.  "I think its about mendacity, much more than its about say, sexuality," Lourie says.

Charlie Murphy, a professional actor from New York City, plays Brick. He too says that much of the play revolves around deceit.

"You’ll hear the word lies, and liars, a lot, that’s sort of a big theme of the play, and in Tennessee Williams life, I think that something, deception, and the deceptions that we live within our lives, he talks about church and family and things that he doesn’t really care about," Murphy says. "But facades that he has to put up, versus whatever that other connection is, that real thing, what do we really want, what are we really trying to pursue."

Director Melissa Lourie says the specter of Big Daddy’s imminent death forces the family to confront their dysfunctional relationships.

"The scene between Brick and his father, it’s a long scene in the second act, and its so powerful and so moving, because, I have children and I know how hard it is to talk to your children -- your adult children," Lourie says. "And that scene is all about that."

(Scene) I better go sit by myself until I hear that click in my head. It’s just a mechanical thing, but it don’t happen except when I’m alone or talkin’ to no one. You’ll have a lot of time to sit alone and talk to no one but right now you’re talking to me, or at least I’m talkin’ to you, and you’re gonna stay there until I say its over. But this talk is like all the other talks we’ve ever had together in our lives. Its nowhere. Nowhere! Its painful Big Daddy! Well let it be painful!

Maggie is played by Katie Hartke of New York City. She believes the heart of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is Maggie’s struggle to save her marriage.

"She’s struggled to claim her place in society, and she knows, at least she thinks she knows, how to get what she wants, and this is a situation where she cannot get what she wants, and I think everyone at some point has been in their life where there’s something that they want so desperately and they’re willing to go to extreme lengths, to get that thing, whatever it might be," Hartke says.

As this scene with Brick illustrates, it’s a fight Maggie will not give up.

(Scene) I might sometime cheat on you with someone, since you’re so insultingly eager to have me do it. But if I do you can be damn sure it will be in a place and at a time that no one but the man and me could possibly know because\I’m not going to give you a reason to divorce me for being unfaithful or anything else. Maggie I wouldn’t divorce you for being unfaithful or anything else. Don’t you know that? Hell, I’d be relieved to know you’ve found yourself a lover. I’m taking no chances. No, I’d rather stay on this hot tin roof. A hot tin roofs an uncomfortable place to stay on. Yeah, but I can stay on it just as long as I have to. You could leave me, Maggie. Don’t want to and will not. 

Director Melissa Lourie believes that Cat On A Hot Tin Roof still has the power to move contemporary audiences.

"I’d like them to say, wow, that was like life," Lourie says. "Tennessee Williams wrote a beautiful essay where he said that what he tries to do with his plays is create a net that he can catch life in. I’m  hoping that they’ll come out with feeling that they saw something that they can relate to, and something that was uplifting and beautiful."

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof will be presented tomorrow through Sunday at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater, with a performance at Rutland’s Paramount Theater Oct. 25.

Neal was a reporter and VPR's All Things Considered host from 2001 to 2014. He joined VPR in 1996, hosting VPR's jazz programming, including live performances from the VPR studios and the Discover Jazz Festival. Prior to VPR, Neal was a programmer and host for WNCS in Montpelier and WDEV in Waterbury. He holds a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College.
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