Despair on a “Hot Tin Roof”

The marriage bed as a stage for Tennessee Williams’ powerful drama of forbidden love and a family’s lost faith in the future

On The Town | David Warren | March 2011

"Some men stop drinking after marriage, some start" exclaims Big Mama confronted with her son downing yet another highball – enough to force any bachelor to the bottle. But Brick is not any bachelor; and the reasons for his diffidence lie deeper. Yet it is marriage happy or hollow, desired or deeply damaged that creates the stage for Tennessee Williams’ world of broken manhood in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, playing at Vienna English Theatre through Mar. 12, and ultimately, for this powerful drama of forbidden love and lost faith in the future.

Williams’s Cat is an intimate family drama examining the relationships between members of Big Daddy’s clan, specifically those between himself and his son, Brick, and between Brick and Brick’s wife Maggie. Most obviously, it deals with individuals coming to terms – or not – with the expectations of others and of society, and with confronting the lies that mask the truer self.

The entire action takes place in Maggie and Brick’s bedroom, and the heirloom bed with its burden of tradition and the constant reminder of their troubled relationship.  For the first act there is little relief – neither for husband, nor audience – from the wife’s tedious sniping. At her resentment’s core is childlessness, bad enough in such a deeply conservative society as the 1950’s deep South, but here made all the worse by her sister-in-law’s prodigious fertility.

However there is much more to Maggie than we at first suspect, and Rachel Spencer Hewitt cleverly transforms our impression of her sultry character over the course of the play. From initially dismissing her as a malevolent nitwit – albeit a remarkably sexy one – we start to appreciate the excruciating torment of her position.  She is after all a young woman, whose marriage brought a faint whiff of bourgeois respectability to a family of red necks made good, is being held accountable by that same family for her barrenness, when she would like nothing better. Tragically, all she seems to want is to get it on with the impotent Brick.

Yet, there is much more to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof than this study of a disintegrating marriage. At the play’s core is an analysis of self-delusion: just as Big Daddy can’t bring himself to admit that he is dying, neither can Brick, come to terms with his homosexuality.

"Mendacity" shrieks Big Daddy at his favorite son, holding untruthfulness responsible for his and his family’s misfortunes, forgetting that the biggest lie is being told by him: Persuading himself that his terminal colon cancer is only a mild irritation and using his new found immortality to look forward to taking a young mistress (an understandable fantasy given Peggy Cosgrave’s noxious Big Mama).

In this awkward interview between father (played by the thoroughly excellent John Tillotson) and his decimated favorite son (the attractively self-pitying and quiescent Ross Hellwig as a high-school hero fallen low) we see two tormented souls trying to come to terms with reality.

The dialogue is at the centre of the drama and is brilliantly executed in this production. Tillotson gives us all the stark crassness and volcanic vulgarity of this Mississippi plantation-owner who believes his cancer is in remission. As he glories in his apparent new lease of life, Big Daddy indulges in little hip-swinging gyrations and shameless pelvic thrusts. Yet, the brilliance of his performance lies in his slow revelation of the vulnerability at the heart of Williams’s domestic tyrant. Examining the reason for Brick’s alcoholism, Tillotson looks like an injured therapist and the sudden shafts of pain with which he intersperses the scene acquire a crushing magnitude when Big Daddy finally admits his condition.

If Big Daddy is hypocritical in his self-delusion, he is quick to encourage Brick to sincerely examine the reasons for his own implosion and candid in admitting the likely causes to himself, claiming that he had seen a lot on his travels and "nothing would shock" him. That tolerance is striking in the brusque old patriarch and particularly, as the complaints about the invasive heat of the night remind us, because we are situated in the bigoted South of the 1950’s.

Tillotson’s Big Daddy is equally, although perhaps less appealingly, honest in his assessment of his own marriage to Big Mama. Unable to disguise his contempt in his dealings with her, he admits to Brick that he could never stand her and going to bed with the poor woman had always been a torment.

Why then, we speculate, did he marry her? Williams never makes the answer explicit, although we are led to suspect the answer is similar to the cause of Brick’s self denial: the stifling conventions of society.

Yet, the solution is not as simple as that. One feels all along that Big Daddy is haunted by the fear that his life, despite the many thousand acres of his "empire", won’t add up to much. To this Maggie provides the solution by (falsely) claiming to be pregnant : an heir! Tillotson brilliantly captures the transition from existentialist rage to requited contentment that comes over the old man. Perhaps then some mendacity is necessary after all and, here, the line between truth and reality really is blurred as Maggie’s claim has essentially forced Brick to stay and provide her with a child: her father-in-law can pass away in peace.

This excellent production brings out the nuanced, irresolvable questions at the centre of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, presenting us with two souls confined within society’s paradigm. Moreover, these two tortured and highly sympathetic characters are struggling to get to grips not just with their own natures but also with their own desire for, and yet their fear of, an objective reality.

Other articles from this issue