IF YOU GO
What: Tennessee Williams masterpiece about a scheming family fighting for control of Big Daddy's fortune
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 17, 18, 19, 24, 25, 27; 2 p.m. Jan. 20, 27
Where: Kiwanis Hall, 1634 Woodford Avenue, downtown Fort Myers
Information: 239-218-0481 or laboratorytheaterflorida.com
On the Web: Sign up to receive more theater news from the Stage Door blog via email.
FORT MYERS — Tennessee Williams writes about the fragile barrier between reality and make-believe. His greatest plays, "A Streetcar Named Desire," "The Glass Menagerie" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" examine characters who can't - or won't - confront those walls. At least until others force them to.
Deep in the heart of old Fort Myers, in an old church along Second Street with an inky black parking lot and a gothic atmosphere, the Laboratory Theater of Florida gives voice to a taut, surprisingly vivid revival of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
After major growing pains in their new space last season, the Lab Theater continues to find success with smaller cast ensemble pieces. "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is not the production you would see at a professional theater, with exacting period details, demandingly perfect accents and every tilt of the head just so. Yet, director Ken Bryant and his amateur cast lift the material to dizzying heights.
Somewhere in the cotton lands of the deep South, probably Mississippi, a family celebrates a birthday. Big Daddy (Rick Sebastian) has returned from the hospital with a clean bill of health. Big Mama (Nancy Antonio) is overjoyed. The diagnosis is a lie. Avaricious son Gooper (Rob Green) and wife Mae (Beth Yazvac) want a slice of Big Daddy's fortune.
But Big Daddy hates Gooper and Mae; he prefers Brick. A faded, drunk ex-football star, Brick (Todd Fleck) broke his ankle jumping hurdles at 3 a.m. Liquor was involved. His wife Maggie (Rachael Endrizzi) remains childless.
The play itself is a literary masterpiece, stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey with symbolism, layers of meaning and motifs for even the furniture. Audiences don't actually need to know that Brick's crutch - which he refuses to turn loose - represents his thorough emasculation at the hands of both Maggie and Big Daddy. Nor that the liquor cabinet reminds viewers of the screen behind which Brick hides from the world.
Bryant slices everything non-essential away to deliver the show with a core cast of five and a quartet of smaller walk-on roles. The resulting drama boils over the stage like an angry thundercloud booming fury across the landscape.
Bryant's delicate surgery excises servants, a few slobbering children, most of the off-stage sound cues and a brace of party guests. While these add depth and richness to the play, I'm convinced he made the right decision with regards to the Lab Theater's tiny stage and the certain difficulty of juggling a large number of people for a minimal impact.
In fact, he probably could have taken his "less is more" approach farther and trimmed the his set design down farther. Minimalism, using the Greek columns of his suggested porch gallery and white blocks for couch, chairs and bed might have suited the play better than tatty furniture on stage.
Towering performances - and the show contains a fistful of them - make this "Cat" a thing of beauty and joy to watch.
Rachael Endrizzi ignites the languorous first act with an electrifying performance that turns Maggie's aborted seduction of Brick into something sublime. Endrizzi shifts her voice into a Southern purr, but one backed by weariness and the fire of an unbroken spirit. She's the indignant panther, stalking Todd Fleck's wounded Brick across the stage.
I love what Bryant accomplishes with the scene. In eliminating some of the extras, he allows the pair to focus on their deteriorating (if not dead) marriage. Endrizzi purrs and pounces; Fleck sits and sips, sits and sips, his one-word answers barely dodging her attacks. The audience won't even realize that the action goes from a simmer to a boil - with them riveted to their chairs - until the screaming, swinging "I tried to kill your Aunt Maggie" finale.
Rick Sebastian erupts onto the stage in Act II as Big Daddy. This might be one of the finest performances I've ever seen him in - and a part his orator's voice demands he play. Big Daddy's power comes not from his physical stature but from his psychological heft - and Sebastian pours every bit of himself into that.
Stomps of his foot send screeching children fleeing like birds before an oncoming storm. Shouts scatter party guests and nosy relatives. Even a laconic, sloshed Brick bends to his will. Then, deep into the second act, Tennessee Williams unveils one of his titanic showdowns, where Brick and Big Daddy talk truth to each other.
Sebastian and Fleck rise to the occasion. Bryant stages the scene, where the hobbled Brick slips off his crutch and is reduced to begging Big Daddy for a drink just to be able to stand, with heart-pounding emotion. Fleck gives voice to Brick's heartache and fears, while Sebastian stands holding a glass of liquor, face twisted with disgust, yet obviously concerned with Big Daddy's worry for his favorite son.
Minutes later, in the play's best scene, the veil between truth and fiction is pierced. Truths beyond truths are revealed - why Brick drinks, the real state of Big Daddy's health - to each other. The scene crackles with emotion. Fleck allows the sadness to creep over his face and his shoulders to slump. Sebastian flies into a rage and runs screaming from the room, ranting "LIARS! LIARS! LIARS!"
Nancy Antonio brings a touching depth to her whining, haranguing Big Mama. Heavily padded at hips and chest and wearing a king's ransom in diamonds, she sweeps into rooms with a shrill squeal and ears closes to all but the sound of her own voice. Her denouncement by Big Daddy - with Antonio holding a birthday cake with lit candles - feels heartbreaking.
Rob Green and Beth Yazvac slide neatly into the annoying, waspish roles of elder brother Gooper and social-climbing wife Mae. Yazvac, in particular, pitches a Southern trill with just the right amount of sweetness to counter the cutting ice of her insults. I love her pale green maternity dress and tiny narrow high-heeled shoes.
Take this opportunity to watch a masterpiece unfold, like the soft blossoms of roses under the morning sun. Endrizzi, Fleck and especially Sebastian give titanic performances to bring the gorgeous, stirring words of Tennessee Williams to life. Even surrounded by lies and deceit, the South never looked so alluring.
Have you ever seen a cat on a hot tin roof? Email me, firstname.lastname@example.org. Email me, email@example.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.