Friday, October 31, 2014

Cat Clings on By Its Claws

By James E. Trainor III
Photos by Emily McKnight

Rachel Korach Howell and Aaron Weiner
Iowa City - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of Tennessee Williams's most iconic plays. Set on a southern plantation in the middle of the 20th century, it tells the story of Brick (Aaron Weiner), who drinks to avoid his family, his past, and his conflicted sexual identity. His sexually frustrated wife Maggie (Rachel Korach Howell) must keep his head above water as his squabbling family threatens to disinherit him. It is a whirlwind of a drama, delivered in three powerful acts, and it is a challenge for any community theatre. Iowa City Community Theatre's production of Cat (directed by Brett Borden) manages to stay on the roof - thanks mainly to the acting chops of Weiner and Howell.

Howell is charming as Maggie. This is a difficult character who starts with two strikes against her: not only is she forced to deliver most of the exposition by herself (as Brick sulks and drinks and utters short grunted responses), but her attitudes about the others in the house and her general cattiness mark her as angry and jaded far too early in her life. In Howell's hands, this text is believable and organic; she's done the character work, and we see a bitterly chatty society woman who's clawed her way up the ranks and isn't about to let a little thing like a loveless marriage stop her. Moreover, she understands that a Williams play is a very musical affair. She's fun to listen to because she revels in the language, the endearing Southernisms, the too-precious metaphors, the silken rhythms. Though Cat is ultimately a tragedy, Maggie brings a lot of fun to the piece, and Howell executes this well.

Weiner is an excellent scene partner. Brick is a man who has given up and seems content to let others define him, so he spends a lot of the time drinking and seething, listening to others' winding monologues. Weiner is very tuned in, and when he does speak, it's with purpose and clarity, and you can tell that he has really let what his partner said sink in. He seems to be pushing the internal struggle a little hard early on, but later in the piece, it comes out with ease and feels totally natural. Brick started on his drinking jag after the death of his dear friend Skipper, who confessed his love to him and was rejected. Skipper drank himself to death quickly after that phone call, and Brick hasn't let the matter rest in his own mind. Ironically, both his wife and his father (Scott Humeston) are casually accepting of the fact that Skipper was gay, and it's only Brick who's disgusted and tormented by the implications. Though Brick's own sexuality is never quite clear in this production, Weiner's scenework is solid, and the anger and the confusion he displays bring us further into the world of the play.

Scott Humeston and Aaron Weiner.
The rest of the acting is competent, but lacks a little clarity and focus. Humeston's Big Daddy certainly makes his presence felt, which is important, but in his scene with Brick there's a lot of wandering around and talking to the air; rarely, if ever, is an important line delivered directly to his partner with all the energy and purpose it deserves. A lot of objective play is unclear here, and while the text itself makes sense and connects to the rest of the play, the delivery feels more like the proclaiming of anecdotes than the undertaking of an important conversation that's driving the story. There's a bit of this throughout the ensemble, actors either walking on without clear purpose or overacting to denote why they're on stage. However, Jeffrey Allen Mead deserves special mention for his Gooper; he's believable -- and quite funny -- as the jealous, conniving brother of Brick.

Borden's direction should have been able to address this in rehearsals, because the shape of the thing is largely there. The relationships are all clear in broad terms, but lack detail, little moments that make these feel like real people. Often actors shift to a new beat or tactic with no outside impetus, which cuts into the flow of the thing. These bumps could be cleaned up with a little close scenework, and indeed, ICCT's Cat is almost there.

If you've never had the privilege to see this play, you should check it out. It's a wonderful script, and ICCT's production features some great acting. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs October 31 to November 9 at the Johnson County Fairgrounds. More information here.

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