Last year, a new theater company emerged in Sarasota. Its stated mission was to celebrate the classic American dramas of the mid-20th century plays. It started with a strong production of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie."
Now Two Chairs Theatre Company is back with only its second production ever.
It will be staging another Williams' work, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," beginning Friday at the Players Theatre.
"My plan is to do a trilogy of Tennessee Williams, and then a trilogy of Arthur Miller," said Two Chairs founder Elliott Raines.
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Williams is arguably the greatest American playwright of all time, and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1955, is arguably his greatest play.
But one reason Raines wanted to produce the play was that it has fallen into obscurity.
"I know theater people -- theater people! -- who have never heard of Tennessee Williams or the play," he said. "It's just not taught anymore."
Even worse, many people who know the title know it from the 1958 movie that starred Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. The movie so severely toned down Williams' references to homosexuality and sexism that it sapped a lot of the play's power. (Williams and Newman were reportedly both unhappy with the film.)
That's an indication of what a great play "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is: even a diluted film version is considered a classic. With one of its central themes almost eradicated, and with many of its characters motivations muddled, "Cat" still makes sharp observations about greed and hypocrisy.
The action revolves around an extended family in Mississippi. The family has gathered to celebrate the birthday of the patriarch, whom everyone calls Big Daddy. The family is aware that Big Daddy has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, but they've been keeping it a secret from him.
But it turns out that's just the most superficial level of the deceit among the family members.
For people who know the movie, Raines said, seeing the play should fill in a lot of blanks. The motivations for many of the characters' key moments are left unclear in the film, because it was heavily edited and re-written without Williams' input.
When Maggie, the Elizabeth Taylor character, announces that she is pregnant, it makes no dramatic sense in the film, Raines said.
"Where does the idea of having baby come from?" he said "It comes from Uranus, it comes from Saturn. In our version you'll see how it happens, why it happens," Raines said.
Williams wrote at least three stage versions of the script. It was the second one that won the Pulitzer. Raines is staging the third one, from 1974. It's very similar to the 1955 Pulitzer-winning version, but it's a little leaner, with extraneous actions edited out by Williams.
Two Chairs is producing the show in association with the Players Theatre. It's listed as a "preseason bonus show" on the Players' season schedule.
Raines is directing "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" -- he directed "Glass Menagerie" as well -- and the cast includes Kathryn Parks as Maggie, Rafael Petlock as Brick, and Allen Kretschmar and Lynne Doyle as Big Daddy and Big Mama.
Parks is better known for musicals than for straight plays, but she said working on a Tennessee Williams play with Raines directing has made the difference between the two seem small.
"It's been interesting to find that connection between stage shows and musical theater," she said. "The writing has such a strong rhythm that it's a lot like music. Elliott didn't want us to have anything memorized before the first rehearsal, so that's how I started memorizing it. I started with the rhythms and then filled in the words, sort of like you would do with a song."
Details: Sept. 3-13, The Players Theatre, 838 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $25-$30. Information: 941-365-2494, theplayers.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.