If you only know “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” from the toothless but highly watchable film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman, then get thee to the African-American Shakespeare Company for a thoroughly engaging, if slightly uneven, take on the work.
Tennessee Williams originally wrote a gritty tale of greed, lust, homosexuality and family dysfunction for the 1955 Broadway season. The play was somewhat declawed in deference to director Elia Kazan’s concerns about the material, but still earned Williams his second Pulitzer Prize. In 1958, under the censoring auspices of Hollywood’s Hays Code, the film version was further neutered.
Director L. Peter Callendar has embraced a restored version of the script Williams worked on in 1974 and, as a pleasurable result, this “Cat” has more bite than usual.
As Maggie, the frustrated wife of an alcoholic ex-jock, ZZ Moor does most of the heavy lifting in the first act. She must prattle, cajole, seduce, argue, scheme, bitch and plead her way through several extended near-monologues with her distant husband, Brick.
It’s an exciting performance, and Moor navigates most of these waters with innate strength and grace. While her prattle is a touch too “fiddle-dee-dee,” there’s no mistaking her hunger, fierce pride and determination to succeed.
Tyrone Davis is a literal Brick, playing an affectless, impenetrable wall of blankness that is neither insolent nor manipulative. He just wants to be left alone, waiting for his click of peace that is perpetually assaulted by Maggie and the rest of the assembled Pollitt clan.
Not easily rebuffed, the powerful Peter Temple, as Big Daddy, demands and gets a level of paternal respect from his son, even as he works out his own demons of mortality and legacy. Less well-treated is Eleanor Jacobs, as Big Mama, who maintains her surface of ignorance to the family games.
The third corner of the continually triangulated drama is occupied by Gooper and Mae, Brick’s scheming brother and sister-in-law. ShawnJ West displays an engagingly weary quality as the perpetually “No. 2 son.” Yazmina Kay’s sister-woman is humorous, but occasionally shrill. Bianca Bougere and Essenia and Rass Robinson play their “no-neck monsters,” and Robert Henry Johnson as Reverend Tooker and E. “Alx” Alexander as Doctor Baugh complete the cast.
Callendar finds good amounts of humor to leaven the drama and also stages many lyrical moments. While the production suffers from occasionally awkward or heavy-handed moments in delivery of the text, the overall result is an honest and revealing look at the destructive nature of family secrets.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Presented by African-American Shakespeare Company
- Where: Buriel Clay Theatre, 762 Fulton St., S.F.
- When: 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 17
- Tickets: $10 to $35
- Contact: (800) 838-3006, www.African-AmericanShakes.org