Tennessee Williams is arguably one of the Titans of modern playwrighting. “A Streetcar Named Desire” was a pivotal moment in 20th-century drama. His 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” was made into a 1958 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. Under the direction of Debra Gillingham, Thalian Association brings the family drama to the main stage of Thalian Hall for one more weekend.
The Pollitt family has assembled at the family homestead, in this case, their plantation, for Big Daddy’s (J.R. Rodriguez) birthday. Their most beloved younger son, Brick (Sam Robinson), will not leave his bedroom due to an injury sustained from trying to jump hurdles on the high-school track field while inebriated. Mind you, Brick has chosen to spend his adult life in a comfortably numb drunken stupor. Pretty much his only goal appears to be to maintain a constant level of alcohol in his blood stream—and punish his wife Maggie (Maggie Miller) with her acerbic tongue and cold actions. They are locked in a bitter struggle: neither will leave the marriage, nor are they living as man and wife. Instead, it is a painful and sadistic battle of wills. Maggie is determined to fill the silence that Brick envelops her with: she chatters almost incessantly in his presence—like if she just keeps talking long enough, eventually, she will break down his barriers and reach him.
Robinson’s Brick is checked out. All that happens around him just doesn’t matter anymore. He doesn’t want to know, he doesn’t want to care, he doesn’t want to feel … any of it.
But Miller’s Maggie is not letting go without a fight—whether it is a fight for Brick and her marriage or for her financial security. Big Daddy is dying and the vultures are circling, which in Maggie’s eyes are Brick’s brother, Gooper (Bradley Coxe), and his wife, Mae (Katherine Rudeseal). Where Brick and Maggie are childless, Mae and Gooper cannot stop talking about and showing off their brood of five with one more on the way.
Baylee Allen, Izabelle Taron, Gabriel Homick, and Emily Skane play the four Pollitt kids and blend the adorableness of grandchildren in singing for Big Daddy with the irritation of the young and wild, as they tear at high speed through the house and disrupt everything in their wake. Gooper knows Brick has been loved more than he their whole lives, but Gooper has a family to provide for now, and he is not going to lose his inheritance to a drunken waste of a brother. Nor, frankly, is Mae going to let that happen.
Rudeseal’s Mae has a vindictive bitchy streak a mile wide. She is on a campaign: The kids are the Trojan horse to get them in the door of Big Daddy and Big Mama’s (Michelle Reiff) hearts. But she is not going to rely solely on saccharine. Where she can sow discord, she will, and Gooper is not above such tactics either. Don’t they sound like a family you would love to spend an evening having dinner with?
Reiff’s Big Mama is the family peacemaker, using her position and the combination of volume and force of personality to make people play as nicely as possible. But bigger, louder and far more forceful than she will ever be (which is saying a lot) is Big Daddy. Rodriguez gives the classic Greek journey of the hero who commits hubris; he is too proud of himself, too certain, he brags too much, and he has flown too close to the sun. Yes, he is a hardworking, self-made man, but now he uses that as a billy club to beat those around him. But Brick just doesn’t care anymore—and that is beyond comprehension to someone who seizes life with such gusto. Robison nails the alcoholic’s preoccupation with liquor; his eyes follow it everywhere it goes. He might not know or care who else is in the room with him, but he is keenly aware of the fate of the glass and the bottle.
Both Maggie and Big Daddy are trying to bridge the chasm to Brick, though by very different paths. Rodriguez’s Big Daddy is nuanced, layered and surprising. He is trapped by time, gender roles and the ultimate fear of a parent: If he is vulnerable before his child, his love might be rejected.
Lance Howell’s set is incredibly impressive. Multiple doors, windows and louvers let out onto the gallery that runs the length of the house and intensifies the sense that one can be overheard at all times. Privacy is a myth in this space. Paisley walls, a sumptuous four poster and a chaise lounge are the markers of wealth, and remind constantly of the luxury this family can provide—but at a price. The hi-fi credenza that doubles as a bar seems to be Brick’s favorite hangout. Howell really out-did himself constructing this abusive, gilded cage.
Wilmington audiences might be interested to know that our distinguished former resident, Pat Hingle (of Commissioner Gordon fame), originated the role of Gooper on Broadway. This cast is fascinating to watch – especially Robison and Rodriguez. Though the subject matter is difficult, they really do bring to life the damaging effects of alcoholism on a family—and even more so, ongoing pain of hidden secrets that drive such desperate need.
Williams was the playwright to make what’s unspoken the focus of a script. With Brick and Big Daddy, he finally got to have two men confess something to each other he never could contemplate with his own father. It is an amazing and startling journey this cast embarks upon nightly—navigating a script that is far from simple or two-dimensional.