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Friday last week I had the pleasure to attend a social event of the Austrian Oxford and Cambridge Society at the Vienna English Theatre where we saw ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ by Tennessee Williams.

It was the first time I saw the play, but I knew the film—a classic from 1958—starring Elisabeth Taylor and Paul Newman and directed by Richard Brooks. I recommend both. The performance at the Vienna English Theatre directed by Jonathan Fox (of the Ensemble Theatre Company of Santa Barbara) and starring Rachel Spencer Hewitt (as Maggie), Ross Hellwig (as Brick), Peggy Cosgrave (as Big Mama) and John Robert Tillotson (as Big Daddy) was brilliant. The lead actors were great, but also those playing the parts of secondary characters. None was ‘flat’—a credit of the playwright but also of the cast of this specific production.

The setting for the play is the American South. The Pollitt family is rich (“28 thousand acres of the richest land …”) but divided and unhappy. Father (Big Daddy) is dying of cancer but has not been told; Mother (Big Mamma) suspects but does not want to admit. Their shared concern is whom to bequest their land to: their eldest son Gooper, who is reliable, married, with five children, but obsessed with money and status? Or to their youngest, Brick, a former football player, who is nicer and a more sensitive person but an alcoholic since his friend Skipper committed suicide following an affair with Brick’s wife, Maggie (‘the cat’)?

For Brick, his friendship with Skipper was “one great good thing which is true”. In Maggie’s eyes, the relationship went beyond friendship and she could not bear the two men’s inability to admit this to each other. To prove her wrong, Skipper tries to sleep with her, and when he fails he commits suicide. Brick is heartbroken. He turns to alcohol and begins hating Maggie. The extent of this hatred, but also Maggie’s resolution to maintain the relationship with Brick thus safeguarding her indirect claim to the Pollitt inheritance is forcefully demonstrated in the first act.

In the second act, Big Daddy confronts Brick and wants to know why he is drinking. Brick’s answer: mendacity. Brick cannot stand life’s deception. Unable to become conscious of his own dishonesty to himself, he has grown obsessed with the falsehood of others. He is drinking because that is a “way out of it”, death being the other. Big Daddy tries to shake him, but is not successful. There seems to be no way out of the psychological impasse. The drama is resolved by Maggie who in the third act declares she is pregnant. She obviously intends to ensure the family tradition is upheld—at whatever cost. Women are not the sympathetic characters in this play. They are frantic, like cats banished in a hot tin roof, not daring to jump off, instead yowling till one’s nerves break. It is the system of mendacity “that we live in” that has made them this; and it is men who have erected this system.

It is a tragic story and, at the same time, absurd—would be laughable had it not been true in this and other variations, still today. People (and families) will often expend an amazing amount of creative energy, slowly turning into aggression, for upholding status and conventions even when these are the source of deep distress and unhappiness. The irony of this, especially in our ‘modern’ times, was beautifully evoked by the cast of this production. Mirth, mixed with sadness, was the type of catharsis delivered—well done!

Playing till middle of March. Check out details at http://www.englishtheatre.at/english/whats-on/cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof.html

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