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This is a splendid production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Subtly lighted, beautifully designed, smartly directed. It constitutes a very fine send-off for a project intended to bridge five seasons: a five-play examination of the work of the great American playwright Tennessee Williams. This first show is directed by Gavin Cameron-Webb, who conceived the whole project. But other performances in other seasons will be directed by different directors, to achieve a variety of perspectives.

The story involves a Southern dynasty scraped together and erected by sheer will and might by Big Daddy, the family patriarch who now rules all he can see, which is a great deal. He has immense land holdings in rich delta country and an immense home. He came from nowhere, off a freight train, and now, with his family around him to celebrate his 65th birthday, he is dying of cancer. His doctor hasn't told him. His family hasn't told him. That's the first lie of many that fester in the family.

The family cycles through the bedroom of the youngest of Big Daddy's two sons. Brick, who tried to recapture some athletic glory, is confined there with a broken ankle. Mostly he hangs next to the bedroom's liquor cabinet and stones himself with drink. Gooper, the older son, is a procreative lawyer with a passel of kids and competitive wife. There're Big Mamma, a couple of fringe figures in a churchman and the family doc, and two black servants on the outer edge of events. Then there's Maggie, Brick's shunned wife, beautiful Maggie the Cat, the cat on the hot tin roof.

The temperature of the family gathering is driven by the question, Who will get control of Big Daddy's fortune when he dies? The amount and variety of lying used to cover up what's really going on, what they really feel, what they really want, or just to stay out of harm's way makes it impossible to square away. To complicate it, Maggie, who is childless, wants a child to make her claim on the inheritance; Gooper and his wife love the money but have only phony affection for Big Daddy and plenty of envy and hatred for Brick, Big Daddy's favorite; Big Daddy's low tolerance extends to Gooper and clan, as well as Big Momma, who he thinks is scheming to assume control.

For three acts they rip into one another. Much canned Southern charm overlays the vitriol so that it isn't only three hours of clawing and tearing. The cast members have their teeth into this play. You must have seen it done before, it is from 1955, but I doubt you have seen a better Big Daddy or Big Mamma or a riper, more luscious Maggie. Rightly or
wrongly, bodies play a part in this. I would vote for rightly in the case of Maggie and Brick, and wrongly in the case of Big Daddy. Burl Ives' rotundness set the standard for Big Daddy in the '50s, but it's not an essential requirement. Terry Layman plays him with a normal late-middle-age body sag. But what's big about Big Daddy is his authority and command.

Ron L. Mathews, as Brick, comes with a football body and first appears stripped to the waist in muscular splendor. Cheryl Kenan's Maggie already is jogging back and forth across their vast bedroom, yapping tirelessly in the frigid silence around her Brick. She soon is down to her slip and is so magnificently sexy it almost defies concentration on the play. Once Kenan gets going, she is able to touch all the tangled points of reference: longing, avariciousness, passionateness, anger, sarcasm, love, need and the like.

Peggy Cosgrave as Big Mamma gives a wonderful performance. With the good news of Big Daddy's clean bill of health -- a lie fed to her -- she elevates into the room with a defiant leap; bad news reduces her to a heap on the floor. She's a big woman, but Big Daddy's savage excoriation of her further shrinks her to a pile of quivering flesh. Layman's Big Daddy is the backbone of this performance. He completely convinces. He has one foot in death, one foot in life, and tries to lie to himself, fend off the wolfish family, and somehow resurrect Brick from the ashes.

Like any actor I ever have seen in the role of Brick, Mathews has some difficulties. Brick is the most puzzling figure in the play. His indifference to the family is virtually absolute. He drinks to anesthetize himself. He is a sort of black hole. Everyone flings attention, parental love, passionate love, hatred, scorn at him. It all disappears.

He is an enigma. The one time he opens up, he's angry about what people are saying about his pal Skipper. Maybe something abnormal there. The operative words at the time were "queer" or "fairy." Brick says what he and Skipper had was true and good and "too rare to be normal."

Yet before Skipper killed himself, he phoned Brick confessing something, and Brick slammed the phone down. Mathews is good here, but much of the time doesn't seem to know what to do with himself, which I would say is the role, not him.

Among playwrights, Williams probably was the most troubled at being blocked from openness about his homosexuality. Even if you take Brick's version of events at face value, it's a leap to his strange behavior. In other places in Williams' work, it seems as though he couldn't finish writing characters as he might have wanted. From all Bricks I have seen, something is missing. The conclusion is, it's not the actor, but an incompleteness in Brick.

Very fine performances include Juliet Pritner as Gooper's wife, Robert Rutland as Gooper, Paul DeBoy as the minister and Saul Elkin as the doctor. Laverne Clay and Richard Satterwhite are the servants. The Gooper children are Colton Rudloff, Kate Przepasniak, Sarah Frank, Christopher Mahiques and Chloe Monin.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Rating:**** Drama by Tennessee Williams. The first production in a five- year, five-play retrospective of Williams' work by the Studio Arena Theatre. Directed by Gav in Cameron-Webb, designed by G.W. Mercier, lighted by David F. Segal. Featuring Cheryl Kenan, Ron L. Mathews, Peggy Cosgrave, Ter ry Layman, Robert Rutland and Juliet Pritner. Performances will continue at 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednes days, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fri days, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 16, (plus 2 p.m. Wednes day) Studio Arena Theatre, 710 Main St. (856-5650 or 800- 77STAGE).

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