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Salt Lake City, UT 84105

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3/19/2005

This 'Cat' is still hot after 50 years

March 19, 2005

Deseret Morning News
By Ivan M. Lincoln

Tennessee Williams' dialogue rips through dysfunctions, secrets

Few playwrights hone in on "dysfunctional" better than Tennessee Williams. Fifty years ago, when "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" first charged into Broadway's Morosco Theatre, it raised the bar on hard-hitting drama.

In this local revival by the Westminster Players, under the nurturing direction of Michael Vought, Williams' high-octane dialogue is still just as provocative and sizzling as it was back in 1955.

Vought's key players are tackling roles that were made famous by Ben Gazzara and Barbara Bel Geddes on stage, Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor on film, and Burl Ives in both.

And -- guess what? -- Westminster's all-local cast succeeds in making the roles their own, delivering some knockout performances.

Ashlee LaPine, who's probably best known for her sweet, ingenue parts in such shows as "West Side Story," "Brigadoon" and "Father of the Bride," really turns up the heat to portray the sultry, rejected Maggie Pollitt.

She shares a bedroom -- but not the bed --with her apathetic husband Brick in his family's Southern mansion.

David Neisler delivers a finely tuned performance as Brick. Both his marriage -- and his bottomless supply of liquor -- are on the rocks.

The action in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" takes place one hot, humid day when the family is gathering at the vast Pollitt plantation for "Big Daddy" Pollit's birthday party.

One of the best scenes in the drama focuses on the fragile relationship between Brick and Big Daddy, a cantankerous old cuss played brilliantly by Ron Frederickson, as they get into a shouting match that brings some dark family secrets and long-festering denial out into the open.

The casting of local Equity actress Jayne Luke as Big Mama is also a bit of genius. The role of Big Daddy's feisty wife is perfectly suited to the talented Luke.

You're not long into the action when it becomes clear that Brick's older brother and his wife -- Gooper and Mae (nicely played by Jeff Nichols and Jessica Montana Shurtleff) -- have ulterior motives that go way beyond birthday presents. They're convinced Big Daddy is doomed to die soon, and they'd love to take over the 27,000-acre spread.

Their offspring (Maggie isn't far off target when she calls them "no-necked little monsters") are played with rambunctious energy by Grady Vought, Robinson Vought and Allison Gesink.

Two smaller roles that don't get much notice until Act 3 are Dr. Baugh and Rev. Tooker, played respectively by Andrew Waterhouse and Brian Draney. (My only quibble with this production is that Draney looks far too young; more like an LDS missionary than a seasoned minister.)

Nina Vought's set design and costumes maintain the 1950s feel, augmented by Spencer Brown's lighting and Sean Fetherston's sound.

But, in the long haul, it is Tennessee Williams' script (which won a Pulitzer Prize) that makes this worth driving miles to see. That -- and to see an outstanding ensemble translate the dialogue smoothly from the page to Westminster's intimate Jay W. Lees Courage Theatre stage.

(Note: Students who are understudying six major roles will get a chance to perform during a free performance at 2 p.m. on March 26.)

Sensitivity rating: Considerable profanity, some sexually graphic dialogue, some onstage smoking. Definitely not for the kids.