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Power struggle sizzles on a hot stage

In a plantation house a few years after D-day, late-night bombings and massive battles for control of governments around the globe, members of a wealthy Southern family gather and fight each other for their own measure of power, position and control.

But Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is not just about power and control.

"It's a play about truth," director Bill Devlin said. "That's the theme. The truth is embodied in the play everywhere."

The family gathers to celebrate the 65th birthday of its patriarch, sentimentally dubbed "Big Daddy."

The mood is not as festive as it should be, however, because a number of issues cloud the day: greed, sins of the past and desperate hopes for an uncertain future as the news spreads that Big Daddy is dying of cancer.

The need for recognition from his father drives Gooper and his wife, Mae, to no petty end as they spar with Brick, the favored son, and his wife, Maggie. Gooper and Mae are heedless to ensure that Brick falls from his position as favorite son and that Maggie is put in her rightful place. Maggie desperately wants to give Big Daddy the news he's been longing to hear, that she's carrying Brick's child. But Brick won't cooperate with Maggie's plans and remains in a moderate alcoholic fog.

Maggie has her own reasons for wanting to become pregnant, but she also wishes to make up to her husband for earlier errors in their marriage. By evening's end, all parties are forced to face the uncertain truth and direction of a future without Big Daddy, as well as the truth behind their own motivations and desires.

Playwright Tennessee Williams penned the fate of this clan, which won him the Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics Award for Best Play of the 1954-55 season.

One of the biggest challenges for Devlin was emphasizing the truth factor in the production.

"That is why I decided to have Battle Hymn of the Republic playing when Big Daddy finds out the truth that he has cancer," he said.

The truth is it was not difficult for Chuck Fightmaster to slip into the role of Big Daddy. Fightmaster, who owns Hernando Counseling Center in Brooksville, is a marriage and family therapist who observes dysfunctional behavior every day.

"This is what I deal with every day in my practice; dysfunctional families with internal power struggles going on, such as kids competing for the affections of the father. In families, when the person with the power becomes sick, the whole family goes crazy getting used to the idea of that person with no more power," Fightmaster said.

Fightmaster appeared as Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha and several light opera productions. He said it is important to understand the characters of Brick and his brother Gooper to comprehend their relationship with each other and their father.

"Big Daddy never had a childhood; he started working on the plantation when he was a young boy. Brick was the son who was talented in sports, even though he's a mild alcoholic now. Gooper has a large family and a successful career, but Brick represents all the things Big Daddy never was able to do," Fightmaster said.

Devlin also places emphasis on constructing a history for the characters the actors portray.

"The first night after the actors have been chosen, I get them together and tell them to read the play carefully," Devlin said. "I ask them what they think of the other characters and questions about their own characters. I ask them to construct a history for each character so they can think and feel as that character. It gives them greater depth."

Devlin studied at the American Theatre Wing under such renowned directors as Lee Strasberg and Robert Anderson. He said that his interpretation of the play, with truth as the central theme, was easy to communicate with the cast because he is working with a group of very capable actors.

Many cast members have had extensive experience, while others are making their debut. Marianna Reeves, who portrays Big Daddy's wife, Big Mama, taught voice, articulation and acting at the University of Missouri. This is her Stage West debut. Charles DePalo, who plays Brick, studied theater at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. He has appeared in previous Stage West productions, as have Jennifer Springer (Maggie), Sharon Farnsworth (Mae) and Anthony Cirrincione (Gooper). Gertrude Proctor, who plays Sookie, is making her acting debut with this production. Ed McClendon (Lacey) is making his Stage West debut.