March 21 2012 12:00 AM

Adventurous director Deborah Keller heads up a crackling production

It would be a daunting task to follow up Michigan State University’s recent production of “Streetcar Named Desire” with another Tennessee Williams classic, yet Lansing Community College took on that challenge with its latest production, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

In the competition of dueling Williams plays, audiences win by getting to experience quality productions of these two powerhouse dramas in one season.

“Cat” is a story about family dynamics and secrets that tear people and relationships apart.  The story takes place during patriarch Big Daddy Pollitt’s (Michael Hays) 65th birthday party. Favorite son Brick (Sineh Wurie) and his wife Maggie (Amy Winchell) are joined on the family estate by brother Gooper (Vincent Mata), Gooper’s wife Mae (Michelle Savala) and their gaggle of children. The celebration is marred by power-mongering in the face of news that Big Daddy has terminal cancer.

Brick is a study in conflict, as he fights his wife, his father, and his own demons. He is deeply mired in guilt after the death of his best friend, and attempts to drown out the world by hiding in his bedroom, drowning his sorrows with liquor. Unfortunately, the room becomes Grand Central Station, where the tracks of all of the family train wrecks terminate.

Another daunting aspect of producing this play is that one is also competing with the iconic performances created by Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor and Burl Ives in the 1958 film version. Director Deborah Keller and her cast avoid recreating those characters, opting for more subtle characterizations.

Winchell, as Maggie the Cat, is a bit on the young side for the role, but what she lacks in maturity she makes up for with earnest, open emotion. She also displays great physicality for the role, owning her sensuality and cutting a perfect silhouette in costume designer Ashley Bryan’s fab frocks.

Act II belongs to Big Daddy, and Hays doesn’t disappoint. His performance is less blustery and more controlled than Ives’s film Daddy. Hays commands respect, and is entrancing when sharing stories of interacting with the poor on a trip to Europe. His attempts to connect with Brick are heartfelt, albeit ham-handed.

Wurie departs from Newman’s Brick in that he is more remote and reserved.  Whereas Newman smoldered with anger, Wurie remains detached until pushed too far, erupting in sudden explosions of anger and violence. He also has the physical presence to go toe-to-toe with Hays’ Big Daddy. 

Keller is perhaps the most experimental, risk-taking director in the Lansing area. She often infuses her productions with contemporary music, vibrant lighting, and multimedia elements, and typically these add to the quality of the play.  Not so this time around.

A pre-play montage of photos and advertisements from the 1950s is an effective way to transition the audience into Williams’ world. However, this transition is abruptly disrupted by what is basically a contemporary music video. The short film, called “Skipper,” seems to be a tribute to the kind of man Brick’s dead friend might have been.  The piece is out of place and adds to an already lengthy running time.

Thankfully, that is Keller’s only misstep. The production values are excellent, including Bartley Bauer’s sumptuous set, Bryan’s costumes and Keller’s own sound design. 

While the play clocks in at over two-and-a-half hours, the pace doesn’t drag.  The script stands the test of time and remains compelling and accessible to modern audiences because Williams brilliantly tapped themes of basic human needs and fears.  Times may change, but the complex politics of family, sex and death remain constant.

‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’

Through March 24

Lansing Community College 

Dart Auditorium

8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

$10; $5 for LCC staff, faculty, alumni and students

(517) 372-0945