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Live Arts pounces on Williams' wily 'Cat'

To get in the mood for the sticky summer nights ahead, make your way down to Live Arts for Tennessee Williams's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," which runs through May 11. In the heat, blood boils, tempers flare and lies flow as freely as liquor.

Director Fran Smith revives this Pulitzer Prize-winning classic play about mendacity, greed and mortality within the dynamic setting of a rich Southern planter's family. The play runs close to three hours in length, but superior acting performances keep the audience engaged throughout.

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" takes place on a vast Mississippi Delta plantation in the household of Big Daddy Pollitt (Jim Johnston), an icon of self-betterment and the American Dream. As Big Daddy prepares to celebrate his 65th birthday, he also prepares for the possibility that he might be dying of cancer. He wants to mend his relationship with his favorite, younger son Brick (Anselm Clinard, who plays the role with great skill and poise). Brick wants nothing more than to dull the pain of living with alcohol.

Big Daddy and Brick struggle to communicate as they face their own fears - Big Daddy's fear of mortality, Brick's homophobic fear of what his friendship with Skipper, a college buddy who recently killed himself, might mean. Their inability to talk in any meaningful way haunts the play, leaving us with a vision of ultimate loneliness and pain.

Brick's wife, Maggie (a dazzling and commanding Mendy Hardy), fights to make Brick care about the material circumstances of his existence. She resents with such bitterness the poverty of her childhood that she will connive and claw (the play calls her "Maggie the Cat") to secure Brick's inheritance of Big Daddy's plantation. She and Brick remain childless because Brick won't sleep with her. Meanwhile, Brick's older brother Gooper (Jay Zehr) and his annoying wife Mae (Jennifer Sohn), who is pregnant with their sixth child, rival Maggie in avarice as they attempt to shut Brick out of Big Daddy's will and keep the plantation for themselves.

This second side of the plot is a meditation of sorts on the American Dream and the ultimate shallowness it produces. Big Daddy worked his way up from overseer to owner of the plantation, "28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile." This is, we are to think, the American Dream at its best, the ideal of landed Southern aristocratic gentility and virtue.

But what has it gotten Big Daddy but a life of materialistic pettiness and deceptive lies? As he confronts his own death, Big Daddy sees how thin the capitalist American Dream really is. The most valuable thing left for him - the possibility of genuine human connection in loving relationships - proves impossible because of the very affluence that has become so comparatively unimportant.

The web of entanglements, betrayals, facades of loyalty, lies and manipulations that characterizes the pressure-cooker of the Pollitt household paints a disturbing but accurate picture of weakness and desire. The characters of "Cat" emerge as deeply flawed but utterly and convincingly human.

In this respect, Brick's booze-soaked consciousness might be the purest thing left in the play. Tormented and without direction, escapist in his drinking, Brick nonetheless remains genuine in his disillusionment and numbed pain. But of course, genuine human weakness cannot triumph - if Brick is any sort of hero, he is a tragic one. The manipulative power struggles that surround Brick engulf him. Maggie the Cat, the cat on a hot tin roof, has him in the palm of her grasping hand.

The Live Arts cast gives us a story about the past and the lies that revisit us continually, about being trapped between the twin demons of mendacity and solipsism. It doesn't paint a rosy picture of humanity, but it does paint a convincing and moving one. Men and women emerge as petty, power hungry and largely unable to communicate - that is, Williams tells us, human.

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