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Wake up Maggie – ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’

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From left to right: Tyler Costigan as Brick, Deb Ashmore as Big Mama, and Jasmine Ireland as Maggie. From left to right: Tyler Costigan as Brick, Deb Ashmore as Big Mama, and Jasmine Ireland as Maggie. (photo courtesy True North Theatre/Chris Goetting, RCS Maine)

ORONO – A classic of the American stage from one of the 20th century’s greatest playwrights is currently in Orono – a sultry Southern night to warm audiences caught in the grip of a bracing Maine January.

The Orono-based True North Theatre is presenting the Tennessee Williams masterpiece “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the Cyrus Pavilion Theater on the University of Maine campus. Directed by TNT artistic director Angela Bonacasa, the show runs through January 20.

This piece – a personal favorite of Williams that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955 – is a magnificent deconstruction of a Southern family in crisis. Insularity and infighting, fault-finding and favoritism – audiences bear witness to it all as some of the most iconic characters in American theater history crawl and sprawl across the stage.

Maggie (Jasmine Ireland) is married to Brick (Tyler Costigan), the scion of a wealthy Southern family. Maggie – known to most by her nickname “Maggie the Cat” – is both ambitious and insecure, seeking to find ways to ensure her husband’s (and hence her own) place as the primary heir to the family fortune. She tries desperately to be the woman that she believes she is supposed to be, all while Brick chooses to sink beneath the surface of a never-ending flow of whiskey. There’s a palpable tension between them, awash in emotions stuck somewhere between rage and despair.

It’s clear to everyone involved that Brick is the favorite of his parents. The blustering Big Daddy (Tellis Coolong) dotes on his son, as does the emotionally fraught Big Mama (Deb Ashmore). Even as their emotionally-stunted son strives to put off adulthood – first by playing professional football and then by becoming an announcer – they hold him in high esteem. This irks older brother Gooper (Erik Perkins) and his wife Mae (Aimee Gerow), both of whom seek Big Daddy’s favor for themselves and their brood of screaming children.

The struggle for place is accelerated by illness. See, Big Daddy has cancer … only he doesn’t know. Everyone else has learned the bad news, but the truth has been kept from the family patriarch in an effort to give him one last good birthday before telling him that his life as he knew it – and indeed, his life in general – was due to come to an end.

The marital difficulties between Maggie and Brick are no secret to the family, though only they know the depths of the circumstances that led to their lack of intimacy. The layers are slowly peeled back and various truths are unpacked as Maggie, Brick and the rest of their family are forced to confront the ugliness churning beneath the surface gentility. A father strives to connect with his son, a wife seeks connection with her husband … and in the midst of every single effort, shadows of the past threaten to overwhelm them all.

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is part of the theatrical canon, one of the most beloved stage plays ever written. This script is the 1974 revival version, the one that Williams rewrote and altered extensively in an effort to capture the precise tone that social mores would not permit him in the mid-1950s. You don’t need me to tell you how masterful a playwright Tennessee Williams was – reading half-a-dozen pages of, well, anything he ever wrote will tell you that.

What I can tell you is that this particular production of the masterpiece is one hell of a brave undertaking. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” marks just the fifth production for the still-fledgling True North Theatre … and it is easily the most ambitious so far. To take on such a daunting, challenging piece is admirable. To do so with the sort of verve and flair demonstrated by this company is simply amazing.

Maggie the Cat is one of the most iconic theatrical roles there is. She is a complicated woman, self-actualized and self-doubting. She is a bundle of contradictions, each of which must be allowed its moment in the sun. Ireland understands that necessity and finds ways to bring forth Maggie’s strengths and vulnerabilities, her desires and desperations. It’s a high wire act, one that requires every tool in the kit – and Ireland busts them out. It’s a kitchen sink performance – everything is left on the stage.

Costigan’s Brick is convincingly damaged, a broken-down old man trapped in the body of a youngster. His bleak outlook and craving for truth push everything else aside; Costigan offers an engaging take on a man slowly drowning in a bottle. Coolong’s Big Daddy is a coarse, self-made man with little interest in the trappings of the Southern gentleman; there is an overwhelming honesty to the performance. He cranks the energy knob to 11 … and snaps it off. It’s some of the best we’ve seen from Coolong. Ashmore’s Big Mama is brittle and bright, driven by a desperate desire for everyone else’s happiness.

Gooper is alternatingly smug and slimy in the hands of Perkins, his greed anchored in a deeper resentment that the actor plays perfectly. Gerow immaculately captures the inherent two-facedness of Southern society, delivering withering contempt through an easy smile. She is utterly infuriating in that “bless your heart” way that only a certain brand of spiteful socialite can be. Bob Smith (Reverend Tooker), Mark Bilyk (Dr. Baugh) and Nellie Ickes-Coon (Sookey) do fine ensemble work, as do the children (Beatrix Foster, Megan Gerbi, Evan Gerbi, Eric Graebert and Ruth Graebert).

The Pav is one of the area’s most interesting performance spaces; the TNT production team takes full advantage. Scenic designer Tricia Hobbs creates an aesthetically interesting and smoothly functional plantation bedroom, one that provides an engaging and flexible playing space. Scout Hough’s lighting design is an ideal complement; few grasp the nuances of illuminating a wide-open space such as this like she does. Rebecca Wright’s costumes are a period-evoking delight. Mary Clark’s sound design and Belinda Hobbs’s props design round out the robust production elements.

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is one of the most challenging plays in the canon, a complex and unrelenting drama reliant on bold choices in every element of production. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned, True North Theater is unafraid of a challenge. This show marks the latest significant success in the brief history of this company … though it certainly won’t be the last.

Last modified on Thursday, 17 January 2019 13:15

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