Cat on a Hot Tin Israeli Roof

The new Beit Lessin production of Tennessee Williams’ play may not tell us much that is new, but the cast is most impressive and convincing.

Daniel Kaminski

Tennessee Williams’ play “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is about people who are afraid to encounter the most human part of themselves. Brick, the former star athlete whose masculinity is cast into doubt, escapes into alcohol; his father, Big Daddy, who is seriously ill, escapes from old age into material things and self-deceit, and the hope that his son Brick will become the fulfillment of everything he is not. The other son and his wife escape into material goods and their children, and all Big Mama wants is for all to be happy. Everyone prefers lies to the scary truth about themselves. Only Maggie, Brick’s wife, is ready to admit that she is an impulsive and sexual cat that won’t jump from the hot tin roof, despite the pain.

This play could only have been written 60 years ago, at a time when homosexuals – like Williams himself – had to contend with society’s ingrained homophobia, as well as their own. Nowadays, the situation seems to have improved somewhat, but at the time, the sensationalism of the subject obscured the fact that this is first and foremost a play about the human predator, who is capable of savagely hurting himself and others. The characters in this play say the kind of blunt, cruel things to each other that in the Hebrew theater might only be heard from Hanoch Levin’s characters.

This is primarily a play about lies that become truth, which is also another way of describing what theater is all about: a pretense that convinces us all of its truth. And from this standpoint, the production directed by Gilad Kimchi for the Beit Lessin Theater certainly makes the pretense convincing, and at times quite moving.

This isn’t easy, since in my opinion, the set design (by Eran Atzmon), with its transparent walls, works against the play, which is far from transparent. But although we are not presented with any radically new interpretation of a familiar play (like the Habima production of “A Streetcar Named Desire”), and although the design doesn’t work very well, this does not detract in the least from my admiration for the acting by the entire cast, which indeed turns the accepted lie of theater into truth.

Yael Leventhal and Shimon Mimran lend a real presence to the characters of the scorned and ungrateful older son and his wife (as do the young actors playing their four children). Liat Goren imbues Big Mama, who clings to lies, with a wonderful vitality. And Avi Oriah (Big Daddy) finally gets a role worthy of his talents at this point in his professional life – passionately burning up the stage and reaching a peak with a shattering cry that comes from offstage toward the end.

Nimrod Bergman is Brick, and one of his qualities as an actor is to project a dark strength out of weakness and restraint, particularly versus Oriah’s fire (the father-son dynamic is at the heart of the play). Maya Dagan, who has racked up a lot of mileage as an entertainer and comic actress, at last gets to sink her teeth into a dramatic and sexy role that requires a good deal of boldness. Fine acting all around.

The next performances of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” will be staged at Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv on June 1, 2 and 3 at 20.30.