African-American Shakespeare Company's production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is set entirely in a married couple's bedroom, with all the other cast members constantly bursting in and walking out in huffs. No, this is not a comedy; Tennessee Williams's favorite of his plays is a drama about a wealthy Mississippi family riven by sickness, avarice, and, the play's most famous word, "mendacity."
With patriarch Big Daddy (Peter Temple) ill, his sons Gooper (Shawn J West), married to Mae (Yazmina Kay), and Brick (Tyrone Davis), married to Maggie (ZZ Moor), vie for the family's sprawling estate. Gooper is straight-laced and competent, but most importantly, he has five children. Brick, a former football star, has no kids, no job, and no interest in anything but booze since his best friend Skipper died -- but he does have the adoration of everyone else on stage. The entire family is obsessed with whether he'll give into Maggie's pleas to have sex with him, as his potential to continue the family line is the hinge upon which their financial futures rest.
Brick and Maggie's bedroom becomes the household's natural meeting place, which director L. Peter Callender emphasizes by having the walls be made out of diaphanous white curtains. Brick's first-act response to Maggie, and to all this pressure, constitutes one of the cruelest lines in all of drama: "But how in hell on earth do you imagine that you're going to have a child by a man that can't stand you?"
In its preoccupation with procreation, this play reduces its female characters to animals. Maggie repeatedly refers to the fact that she's had her equipment validated by one of the best gynecologists in the South, as if that alone could affirm her worth. Big Daddy calls Mae a "good breeder" and tells a story about "a young female elephant in heat" who's "permeatin' the atmosphere about her with a powerful and excitin' odor of female fertility." Yet the play also celebrates its characters' deepest human emotions, pitting against each other characters whose desires and flaws are so evenly matched that their conflicts take on epic weight.
Af-Am Shakes, whose mission is to "envision the classics with color," offers non-union black actors a chance to play roles they might not get to play otherwise. Professional or not, this cast paints a rich portrait of a family in crisis. Every moment in Callender's direction is charged with the urgency of survival; every word spoken stems from the belief that the world of the play, the security on which characters rest, could melt away at any moment.
Moor as Maggie has the forced confidence and too-loud laughter of someone who's had to claw to get where she is but is left abandoned once she gets there. Temple, with his stentorian voice and commanding physique, is a natural barking Big Daddy's harsh orders and crass jokes, and he's every bit as powerful when vulnerable, stalling with tangents for minutes on end rather than admit to Brick how much he needs his son. Eleanor Jacobs makes the simpering, ribald Big Mama (you can probably guess whose wife she is) equally comic and sympathetic; every off-color joke or pathetic plea is so clearly motivated by her love for her husband and her desire to make him become the man of her fantasy. Only Davis, as Brick, leaves much to be desired; just because his character has checked out from his life does not mean he as an actor can check out from the play.
A cat on a hot tin roof, according to the play, is a desperate, nervous woman who is willing to stay in an uncomfortable place as long as it takes to get what she wants. In this production, Callender and cast create a similar experience for their audience. It's wrenchingly difficult to watch, and yet we can't look away.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues through Feb. 17 at the Buriel Clay Theater at the African American Art and Culture Complex, 762 Fulton St., S.F. Admission is $10-$35.