As a New Yorker, I often consider myself to be a bit of a jaded judge when it comes to, well, everything. I have dined at the top restaurants, shopped at the best stores, and have had the privilege of sitting through some of the most impeccably produced Broadway and Off-Broadway performances. So, when I was prompted to drive to DeSales University (in of all places, Center Valley, PA) to see a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, I left my expectations in Manhattan and drove to what I thought would be a quick night at the theatre. And nothing more than that.
Dear readers, I am happy to report that I was wrong. Dead wrong. My evening was ANYTHING but a quick night at the theatre. Director Thomas Ouellette, has led a team of uber-talented actors to the stage in a moving, deeply dark rendition of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams. This is an astounding production that I am confident Williams himself gave a standing ovation to, from the heavens above.
Eleanor Handley takes the role of Maggie and owns it. I mean, she really owns it. Most often played with child-like immaturity, Handley takes Maggie past puberty and morphs her into a scintillating, southern woman. Strong and defined; manipulative just to the teetering point of despising her and then coming through with a human side, that was not only moving, but made her real and relatable. Her performance was robust and an absolute delight to watch. She gracefully moved her character and the story-line forward with every sexually infused, sashayed step she took in her stunning red ensemble (which was beautifully costumed by Lisa Zinni). Handley created a flawless foundation for this production of Cat. She no doubt has allured audiences in the past and will continue to do so in her future theatre endeavors.
Tom Degnan’s performance was nothing less than brilliant as Brick Pollitt. He transformed this drunken, disconnected, shell-of-a-man into someone you actually felt sympathy and empathy for. Instead of hating his indifference and loathing of the world and everyone in it, he made me want to crawl into the bottom of the whiskey bottle with him and dig deep into his neurosis and psychosis. Seamlessly played, Degnan’s rendition of “ex-football star” Brick was moving and touched me in a way few actors have been able to do. He hit my reality button and made me believe he truly was this tortured and despondent man. His callous and detached silence at times proved to speak louder than the words he delivered in voice. Degnan’s portrayal of Brick’s listlessness and negligence toward himself and the relationships around him (including the bottle), kept me hanging onto every crutched stumble he made across the stage. Tom Degnan pours life into a seemingly dead character. Having personally dealt with someone who struggled with substance abuse, he brought the demons of this man to such a real and poignantly truthful place, there were moments my eyes welled watching him struggle against himself. Degnan, a former daytime television star, should at this juncture in his career remain famous for one and only role thus far and that is of his interpretation and phenomenal delivery of Brick Pollitt. He has set the bar very high for future “Bricks” and has left behind shoes that will be virtually impossible to fill going forward.
This production is a pool of talent with a bevy of notable performances including Joe Vincent as Big Daddy, and Jo Twiss as Big Mama. Carey Van Driest and Rob Kahn as Mae Flynn and Gooper, and Anthony Reimer and Larry Bull as Reverend Tooker and Doctor Baugh, respectively. Even the Pollitt children were delightfully obnoxious!
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof transports the audience to a hot, muggy plantation in the 1950’s and slowly pulls them into the somber and murky world of the wealthy, southern Pollitt family. Topics carry over time and space and were tangible to every person who owned a seat in that theater — cancer, substance abuse, death, marital issues, greed, fall from grace. And just when the mood on stage became suffocating in humidity and darkness, a “comic relief” was issued to the audience providing not an awkward laugh but one that was poised and perfectly timed. Bravo, Mr. Ouellette, for a beautifully directed performance. I take my hat off to you.
My only regret is that the Shakespeare Festival is at the end of its run and I am unable to return to Center Valley, PA and catch more performances (Much Ado About Nothing, Sweeney Todd and The Tempest – to name a few).
The curtain falls on August 5th, 2012. I cannot encourage you enough to make the trip to The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival and catch what I am going to call the BEST rendition of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof I have ever had the honor of watching.
Tickets are available at www.pashakespeare.org and by contacting the Box Office at 610.282.WILL 
My recommendation for local lodging is the stunningly, beautiful Victorian bed and breakfast – The Sayre Mansion. The accommodations are impeccable and it is just a short 15 minute drive from Historic Bethlehem, PA to the DeSales campus.