Something to scream about at Oldcastle

Renata Eastlick and Loren Dunn in a scene from Oldcastle’s production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”/Provided image

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For their last full-run show of the 2014 season, Bennington's Oldcastle Theatre brings in a larger cast than usual for Tennessee Williams' 1955 family drama "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," which follows the multi-faceted reactions of a Mississippi plantation family to the news that their patriarch Big Daddy, played by Paul Romero, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Although he doesn't really step into the spotlight until the second act, Romero's portrayal of the boisterous, larger-than-life Big Daddy Pollitt is one of the highlights of the show -- he ably walks the difficult line between the character's explosive emotions and his sympathetic, scared side -- all while keeping the audience deeply amused and entertained with sharp wit and some light buffoonery.

While some of the characters in this production end up overshadowed by the sheer presence of Romero's Big Daddy, a few of the actors find their own ways to win over the audience, especially Melissa Hurst, who believably navigates the family crossfire as Big Momma, and Loren Dunn, who carries the story in important ways as Brick, the wayward, whiskey-sipping younger son of the Pollitt family.

Contrasting Big Daddy's exuberant energy with his quiet, drunken introspection, Dunn sometimes says more with his incredulous smirk then he says aloud, and his reactions in the background of some scenes sometimes offer more insight into the situation at hand than the dialogue itself does. Brick never really steps up as the star of his own breakout scene like some of the other characters do, but he has a way of holding the audience's attention even when he's just lingering in the background, sipping fake whiskey and letting his mind drift from the scene to his own world of comfortable, alcohol-induced apathy.

Dunn's extended scene with Romero at the start of the second act is particularly engaging and impressive -- the chemistry between the two actors produces a recognizable, relatable father-son relationship; like so many fathers and sons, the two are obviously cut from the same cloth and they seem to understand each other intimately, but they also excel at offending, upsetting and disappointing each other after years of experience. This relationship is extremely important, and Oldcastle's production gets it right.

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Thanks to Oldcastle's intimate Main Street theater, the looming sets and this show's repeated instances of loud yelling, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is also a particularly immersive experience, bringing the audience right into Brick's bedroom as characters cycle in and out from all directions.

Thanks to both the cast's performances and Williams' unrestrained script (which includes some moments of well-placed adult language), this show is also an unexpectedly therapeutic experience. At various points, characters loudly vent their frustrations over financial, marital, health, and family problems, as well as their own personal issues with addiction, regret, lost glory, jealousy, betrayal, and disappointment -- effectively running the gamut of the common personal crises that affect modern American society.

Thanks to sheer quantity of issues that the various characters voice, if you enter the theater with a problem on your mind there's a decent chance that one of the characters is going to scream about it sometime during the show. It may not ultimately solve anything, but airing grievances can make everything feel better -- whether you're an aging plantation owner berating family members or a theater-goer watching actors say (or shout) something you can relate to yourself. Of course the situation in it's entirety is exaggerated, but the web of sub-conflicts that weave together in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" are universal enough for us all to understand.

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" runs for the next two weekends with shows at 7:30 on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights as well as 2 p.m. matinees on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are available at the box office as well as by phone at 802-447-0564 or online at oldcastletheatre.org.


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