Raven Theatre’s ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ steams it up

Meow! Maggie is in heat, and there’s no stopping her. Pity that her husband, Brick, is giving her the cold shoulder and seems more in love with reaching the bottom of a liquor bottle than bedding his randy wife. Also doesn’t help that he’s a deeply closeted ‘mo — a fact that’s slowly eating away at him. Meanwhile, Big Daddy’s cancer scare is nothing more than a spastic colon, thank God! … or is it? The family swoops in like vultures to pick away at the inheritance — a 28 thousand-acre plantation — and Maggie’s drive to consummate her marriage with a child grows stronger. How else will she claim her rights to Big Daddy’s kingdom without an heir?

Raven Theatre’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is my first experience with this Tennessee Williams play. Nope, never seen the movie. So, at intermission, when people were whispering things like “Well, Elizabeth Taylor fit the part so well because blah blah blah,” and “Big Daddy usually is an overwhelming figure blah blah blah” I tried to turn off my ears. I’m glad I had no frame of reference, because this production is pretty darn good.

Director Michael Menendian’s handsome, straightforward production features a standout ensemble cast. As Maggie, Liz Fletcher oozes southern charm and steely manipulation. There’s also an undercurrent of sadness, which helps you empathize for her situation, and she does a fine job delivering all the necessary exposition for acts two and three (the show runs 2:30, including two ten-minute intermissions). As Buck, Jason Huysman is wry, wounded and emotionally detached. It’s clear his main goal is to get sloppy, stinking drunk. Huysman is often chuckling to himself as the rest of the family flits and flutters around him, trying to win over Big Daddy’s affections.

But it’s Jon Steinhagen’s performance as Big Daddy that stays with me. Yes, Steinhagen is far too young for this role, and no amount of age makeup will cover this reality. And his stature isn’t exactly Big. But his performance is so irritatingly wonderful, you can’t help but believe he’s ruled this roost with an iron fist for generations. Steinhagen plays up Big Daddy’s irritation. This is a man who’s worked extremely hard for his lot in life, and he detests being taken advantage of by greedy, two-faced backstabbers. In short: his family pisses him off — except for Brick. His confrontation scene with Huysman as he tries to understand why his son has turned into a raging alcoholic (though, you get the impression Big Daddy already knows why, and is just helping his son deal with it) is honest and gripping.

See this show.

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” plays through Jan. 15 at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark Street, Chicago. More info here >

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