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Monday, December 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 19.0° F  Overcast
Arts
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Strollers Theatre's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a remarkable portrait of a southern family in crisis
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Jessica Jane Witham (left) heats up the stage as Maggie the Cat.
Credit:Philip Klein

A sold-out house and a standing ovation welcomed Strollers Theatre at its opening performance of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof last night. This exemplary production runs through Feb. 2 at the Bartell Theatre.

Perhaps it was the racy playbill featuring leading lady Jessica Jane Witham that drew me to the show. Or perhaps it was the perennial popularity of playwright Tennessee Williams. Whatever the cause, as I entered the crowded lobby, the excitement was undeniable, and it didn't just belong to me. Box office staff quietly found extra seating to accommodate an unexpected overflow of guests.

Themes of desire and decay emerged before the play began. The intimate Evjue Stage was set as a southern boudoir. A gaudy white brass bed and nightstand pressed against the back wall; a vintage vanity and a long, low liquor cabinet faced toward the performers at the front corners of the stage; and a sofa along the right side overlooked the bed. Neither spartan nor experimental, the set and lighting design were unpretentious and comfortably classic, with the exception of the third act's noir-inspired "barred window" lighting effect, which was unexpected and very enjoyable.

As the lights dimmed, Witham took the stage as Maggie the Cat, emanating gravitas steeped in desire as she flitted between the roles of manipulative housewife and spurned-but-still-amorous lover. During a birthday party for Big Daddy, a cancer-stricken cotton magnate who's unaware that he's dying, she coaxed palpable tension from dialogue with her husband, Brick (Dave Durbin), an aging football star who struggles with alcoholism. The temperature of the room rose a few degrees as she slid out of her sheath of a dress, revealing the pale, diaphanous slip that would comprise her costume for the rest of the first act. If Durbin seemed a little flat in comparison, it was no fault of his own; he provided a suitable foil for Witham's heat.

Sam White and Patricia Kugler Whitely turned in memorable supporting performances as Big Daddy and Big Mama. White's bombast and red-faced swagger filled out the cartoonish proportions of Daddy, while Whitely made a wonderfully plucky, overbearing caricature of a Mississippi housewife. Kelly Fitzgerald and and Jason Compton gave an enjoyable, comedic performance as Mae and Gooper, a couple trying to snatch the family fortune, lightening the mood between the more dramatic movements of the plot.

Oddly, there was no introduction or presentation of notes by director Jeff Knupp, nor was there any sort of "support the theater" pitch. But I suggest that you support Strollers Theatre by seeing this show, which I found quite impressive.

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