Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Any play that chooses fraud as its theme can't help but seem dangerous. Theater, after all, is the craft of deception, but it's never kosher to come right out and say so. A play where actors play characters who put on roles of their own feels just a little impolite, which of course is what Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is all about: What happens when people see just a little too much, hear just a little too much and know just a little too much to ever be comfortably fooled again?
The African-American Shakespeare Company's alluring and discomfiting (in a good way) "Cat," starring ZZ Moor and Tyrone Davis and playing through Feb. 17 at the Buriel Clay Theatre in San Francisco, gives audiences plenty to think about when it comes to deciding whether ignorance is still bliss.
AASC's second show of the season (their third and final production, "The Merry Wives of Windsor" opens in May) takes us once more into Big Daddy Pollitt's house, where the patriarch of a plantation covering "28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile" is, unbeknownst to himself, dying.
It's a house full of compulsive liars that fool only themselves. Youngest son Brick, crippled in body and spirit, has something close to an honest streak but he's content to drown it in drink. Brick's wife, Maggie the Cat, labors against reason to save Brick, their marriage, the family fortune, and possibly her own self-worth.
Director L. Peter Callender certainly displays an admirable grasp of the material: His staging brings audience members a sense of full, unflinching intimacy, as if we too have been conscripted into the family against our will, uncertain how we arrived but sure that no egress will suddenly become available.
The Buriel Clay Theatre has no stage curtain but curtains smother the set anyway, insubstantial shrouds that the actors are forever opening, closing, and reopening despite their transparency. It's a compelling visual comment on the story: Everything is covered up, but nothing is ever hidden.
ZZ Moor is Maggie the Cat, working as sultry and mercurial as the role will warrant. She occasionally drifts too far into something resembling a '40s femme fatale but Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning script reels her back in with timely reminders of the stakes for which she's playing. If Maggie has no shame, it's only because she was never able to afford it.
Moor plays Maggie right down the middle, a woman who doesn't mind being on top of the bottom as long she stays put. Moor commands Act 1 while Peter Temple owns Act 2, breathing fire and belching lightning as boisterous (but doomed) Big Daddy, a lusty locomotive seething with need but also wrestling with profound sorrow. He has the world's loudest existential crisis and gets most of the play's best lines.
But like the family it portrays, "Cat" hinges on Brick. Desperate, weary, alcoholic Brick, here played by Tyrone Davis. Davis puts in an uneven day's work, seeming to struggle with much of his dialogue and rarely appearing in touch with the character's sexual ambiguity. And, to be honest, Brick's bad ankle is not the only thing that seems a bit stiff.
But Davis also turns out to be a man of singular talents. Apropos of Brick's longing for solitude and silence, Davis works wonders when he says little. His haunted, hungry expressions and looks of wounded compassion bring real soul to the stage, and he proves something of a lodestone for the audience's attention: Whenever the action moves elsewhere, it's hard not to dwell on Davis' somber presence.
AASC's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is a production about big things: big men, their big houses, their big lies, and their big deals. It's also a production about tiny things: the tiny cracks in the seams and foundations of lives and dreams. As an audience we know exactly where the cracks are because Callender's smart staging seats us right in the middle of one and then his adroit cast enlarge it around us, bit-by-bit and chink-by-chink. By the time they're done we feel a bit winded, but enthralled.
"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" runs through Feb. 17 at the Buriel Clay Theatre, 762 Fulton St. in San Francisco. For info or tickets, call 415-762-207 or visit www.african-americanshakes.org