Sex, Drugs, Booze and Death at the Guthrie

10 Feb

There is feast of desperate love and mortal addiction now set at the Guthrie Theater, and the two shows – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (directed by Lisa Peterson) and End of the Rainbow (directed by Terry Johnson) – are passionate complements and excellent productions. They do the things that a large scale theater looking to attract a steady audience does best – terrific scripts, fiery acting, engaging sets and costuming – without feeling pointlessly extravagant or stuck in kitschy adaptations. The focused punch of both these productions mean they are delectable by themselves, and taken together, provide deeply satisfying food for thought.

Peter Christian Hansen (Brick) and Emily Swallow (Margaret). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

On the Wurtele Thrust is Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I confess that I am biased towards this work, having acted in a disrupted and deconstructed version of the show, “Lamb Lays With Lion’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” several years ago, but it was also Williams’ own favorite from amongst his works. The program quotes Williams as writing, “That play comes closest to being both a work of art and a work of craft…[I]t adheres to the valuable edict of Aristotle that a tragedy must have unity of time and place and magnitude of theme.” Williams goes on to note that everything in the play occurs exactly in real time and in one setting, which is a feat for the playwright and a luxury for the audience. In banishing the switches of time and place, Williams frees the audience to truly contemplate the marital relations of Brick and Maggie, the cancer of Big Daddy and the morass of family politics and power plays.

If a chief criticism of that Aristotelian catharsis is that it is too easy for the audience to feel like they have seen something in a satisfying entirety (for example, Romeo & Juliet die, the Friar tells the story and the families make peace), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof denies that easiness. In leaving the theater, I overheard a woman remark in confusion, “There’s no resolution. He’s going to die and they’re going to do it.” Which is exactly the point – Big Daddy is dying of cancer and Brick and Maggie need to have a baby to save themselves, which means that Maggie must, by her force of will, manage Brick’s alcoholism. Williams doesn’t resolve any of these issues for us, he simply lays bare the struggles to come to terms with these real-life dilemmas and invites us to the table.

The production, to its credit, does what great chefs do with fresh ingredients – applies just the right amounts of fire and steam to bring out the flavor. Emily Swallow as Maggie is sultry and magnificent; her first act stream of speech opens up all the subtle variations of defensive anger at the machinations of the scheming in-laws Mae and Gooper (the slippery and snide Michelle O’Neill and Chris Carlson, respectively), desperation at her husband’s distance, a touch of fear and also tenderness and pride, which makes her and immediate and undeniable presence. For his part as Brick, Peter Christian Hansen maintains the easy aloofness of a man trying to get away from his own sense of failure and shame, a man for whom alcohol and “the click” – when the intoxication takes over and forgetting sets in – are more important than resolving the actual troubles at hand. When he breaks his silence and gets into it with Maggie and his father Big Daddy (the stubborn and brawling David Anthony Brinkley) over his failures as an athlete and the rumors of homosexuality, the awkwardness and then the rush of speech embodies how difficult these real conversations are. The result is a show that is as sweet, biting and lingering as the blackstrap molasses that would have covered Big Daddy’s cornbread.

Tom Pelphrey (Mickey Deans) and Tracie Bennett (Judy Garland). Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Over on the McGuire Proscenium is another bravura show of addiction, sexuality and difficult conversations, albeit with a form of resolution – after all, it is right there in the title End of the Rainbow. This new play, by Peter Quilter, is stopping in Minneapolis in between moving from London’s West End to Broadway and takes a look at several weeks in the life of Judy Garland in 1968 as she prepared for a run of shows in London and ends, after a jump in time, with Garland’s funeral six months later. This isn’t a spoiler, as the facts of history are right there in the program notes. What’s interesting to know is that although the play started off as a look at a generic diva, over the course of ten years it morphed into a project about Judy Garland, who is a far more powerful presence in cultural memory. In that way, the unity of time and place that Williams offered is instead extended by a unity of history and nostalgia.

But Tracie Bennett’s Garland is not the ingenue that captured America’s heart, but a woman ravaged by years of bad relationships and drug and alcohol abuse who remains and incandescent and explosive spirit nonetheless. With Garland broke and depending on the success of the shows to pay the bills, she has vowed to stay clean and focused, but that struggle, aided and abetted by those around her, is not so easily won. Bennett packs that history into a blazing, spiraling Roman Candle of a performance, full of Garland’s bold, brassy, bawdy jokes and wheeling, often in a moment, between a bold proclamations of getting clean and the begging dependence of the addiction. Tom Pelphrey, as her new beau Mickey Deans, starts off as an ur-masculine protector, charged with keeping Garland sober until her pleading threatens the run of the show and he transforms, selfishly and helplessly, into her provider. All this is much to the chagrin of Anthony (the wry Michael Cumpsty) her gay pianist who disapproves of Deans and loves Garland in his own urgent, platonic way.

The parallels between the two shows are rampant, and telling as they touch on the “magnitude of theme” that Williams quotes. Deans struggles to do what is right for Garland until it becomes too much in conflict with what he needs to do for himself, much as Mae and Gooper do what they feel they must in order to protect their own and what they see as the family’s best interests. Garland, in her desire to be loved purely and immediately is stuck in the same agonizingly separate position as Maggie, and yet, having seen her moments of immortality and glory now slip away, she is also Brick, the former athlete who can’t stand to watch as other do what he no longer can. Garland and Brick both use drugs and alcohol to get away, to get that “click”, that makes one forget, even temporarily, ones own failings and pressures. The historical social shaming of sexuality is bound up in both pieces, from the taunting of Maggie’s childlessness to Brick’s anger at the intimations of homosexual feelings on the part of his dead friend Skipper to the shocks of Garland’s variegated sex life to Deans railing against Anthony as a threat to his control.

Garland says it from stage, uttered in a moment of self-searching anguish, that it is a terrible thing to know what you are capable of, and never to reach it. Even more difficult is the challenge which Maggie makes for herself, to make the lie real – that they can be happy together, that they can have the child that she has promised in order to save the family. These are not issues that are resolved in two hours of drama. These are the joys and tragedies of our lives as they unfold. They are so close on stage we can taste them; there’s the Ritalin in Rainbow and the Echo Spring whiskey in Cat. We’re going to die, and we’re going to do it. The world is filled with weak, beautiful people, and with those who would take them by the hand. You have got to chose unconditional love if you can. Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true?

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