‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ listens for sounds and silences

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The Calhoun cabaret theater is small and bare, and on this particular occasion the set is surprisingly prosaic: a bed, a sofa, a cabinet and a few chairs are the only furnishings used throughout the two-and-a-half-hour show. But even if the performance took place in a bare concrete cell, it would make little difference, because this is Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and it is dominated by sound — and by silence.

Maggie (Lucy Cabrera ’14), the eponymous Cat, can’t stop talking. In the privacy of the room she shares with her husband Brick (Nathaniel Dolquist ’14), Maggie sneers at her sister-in-law Mae (Becca Edelman ‘14), speculates on the fatal illness of Brick’s wealthy father Big Daddy (Charles Gillespie DIV ’12), and tries to cajole the cold and indifferent Brick into renewed intimacy with her. Cabrera sports a languid drawl that is both honey and poison, and which shifts easily between arch sarcasm, snide superiority and coquettish pleading. The first act is almost entirely dominated by Maggie talking, and it’s only when she stops that the viewer notices the gaping silence she has been trying to fill.

Director Kate Heaney ’14 says this focus on sound is intentional. “I was really interested in how we could work with the space to create a landscape that the audience was a part of.” As a result, croquet players cheer from behind the audience and children sing “Happy birthday” from behind the side door. The confrontation in which Brick finally reveals to Big Daddy that he has cancer is juxtaposed with the distant, ironic gaiety of Big Daddy’s birthday celebration coming from outside the theatre. In this production of “Cat,” the play is not confined to the stage. Instead, it takes place all around, transforming the entire theatre into the setting and the viewer into a fly on the wall, peering into the private lives of the Pollitts.

Indeed, there is something disturbingly voyeuristic about the position the audience is placed in while viewing “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” The play takes the Pollitts, seemingly the epitome of the happy and affluent Southern family, and slices through to the mess that lies beneath. As if that were not enough, separate moments of visceral revelation occur for each character, when the public masks of civility and affection come off in private. The disclosure of their true selves — petty, loveless, grasping and vulgar — leaves them mentally naked to the audience in a way that is far too close for comfort.

Cabrera and Edelman’s performances as Maggie and Mae are particularly effective. The feuding sisters-in-law spend the entire play claiming superiority over each other. Mae depicts Maggie as snide and “catty”, while Maggie expresses disdain at Mae’s blatant attempts at using her children to win Big Daddy’s favor. However, at the end of the play, it is Maggie who lies that she is pregnant in order to secure the inheritance for her husband, and Mae who turns to mocking and sneering in the vilest manner as her own machinations begin to unravel. For all their claims of superiority, they are exactly the same, and equally revolting.

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” should have been boring, given its subject matter: a family gathering, an argument in a bedroom and an after-dinner shouting match. Instead, it is riveting. The silences are tense, the confrontations are dramatic and the characters are refreshingly contemptible. It’s easy to leave the theater with a measure of pity for their dysfunctional lives, and thankfulness for one’s own.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is running at the Calhoun Cabaret from Thursday, Feb. 2 to Saturday, Feb. 4.

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